Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Counter-mapping and The View From Nowhere

This post consists of images presented at the Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers) midterm conference held at Royal Holloway University of London on the 19th of April 2018.

In this presentation I place myself in the 'Philosophy in Geography' camp, a group that includes Gunnar Olsson and John Pickles, but also decidedly outside the more recently formulated (and much more nihilistic) non-representational-theory (NRT) geographies movement that is still very strong in the discipline.

The reason I consider myself an outside to the current mainstream of geographical thought and NRT is that I still believe in this existence of objective physical reality, one that lies outside of what the human mind can know in its entirety, or even in significant part.  I am informed in my thinking by Kant's idea of The Thing Itself, a philosophical and dialectical formulation of the unknowability of physical reality due to the limitations of the senses, and to the fact that space and time are projections informed by the structures and tendencies of the body and the mind.

Adam Roberts and Olaf Stapledon come to mind.  Two very philosophical science fiction writers who wrote stories inspired by Kant (in the case of Roberts's book The Thing Itself) and about a roving Lockean punctum (in the case of Stapledon's book Star Maker).  Both were challenging ideas of absolute knowledge (aka The View From Nowhere) by structuring some written speculations in fictional form (with characters, plots, and conflicts) for exploring, critiquing, and taking to absurd (but at the same time very believable) logical conclusions the implications of literalizing what it might actually mean to be able to access The Thing Itself, or to act literally as though one were a roving punctum, unbound by both space and time.

I would like to apply, here at first in an academic setting, and perhaps later maybe even as a work of speculative fiction, the idea of a View From Nowhere.  My source text for this idea is Nagel's book by the same name, published by Oxford University Press in 1986.  I have an idea of how a short and deceptively simple participatory mapping exercise can be structured around such an idea; it will take quite a bit more thinking and writing to begin to write out a set of science-fictional stories around the same.  We will work together today (time permitting) to work on a few maps.  Rest assured I'll be pondering the second problem at length in my study later.

"The natural place to begin is with our own position in the world.  One of the strongest philosophical motives is the desire for a comprehensive picture of objective reality, since it is easy to assume that that is all there really is.  But the very idea of objective reality guarantees that such a picture will not comprehend everything; we ourselves are the first obstacles to such an ambition" (Nagel, 1986, page 13).

The quote above comes from the opening paragraph of part II of Nagel's The View From Nowhere, and what I find striking about it, and what drew me to the book initially, is how much it resonates with what we have come to associate, in geography, with methodological reflections (often of a poststructural variety) on positionality and reflexivity of the researcher's position in relation to their subject and/or co-participants and fellow knowledge discoverers and constructors.

But note, Nagel is a liberal individualist, practically speaking a literal neo-liberal of the kind that we might find being vehemently battered by critique from the (admittedly often very obscure) halls of academic geography.

But what many might dismiss as preliminary material or as a 'housekeeping' issues, I take as my central concern.  We cannot dismiss Nagel or his thought because of who he is; we must also take seriously and at some length issues around what the subject's position is in relation to the subject matter, how it is that the 'subject' comes to know, through what cultural lenses, and indeed, what mappings their knowledge is constructed.  As a liberal, white, individualist (because I'm really not much of a communitarian, life has taught me this if anything) I must examine both my love of Nagel and what I see as his objectivity and his rightness, and how it is that I've come to know this way of mapping my own knowledge (as a privileged, white, academic) onto the world and its subjects, objects, in the very limited set of times and spaces with which I've interacted and perhaps in part constructed.

My research has taken place mostly in Canada, amongst its First Nations and Inuit cultures, the former with whom I did a great deal of growing up, and the latter with whom I completed a postdoctoral project that wrapped up just a few years ago.  In between and since I've begun to research ideas of indigeneity and the postcolonial in Scotland, now that I live in the UK, all the while retaining a transnational focus that has become increasingly complex, especially from the perspective of someone who is an outsider trained in an anthropological tradition, now in a very geographical milieu among those both more, and less, like myself than those I found myself among back in Canada.

I will introduce the idea of Televisual practices, a concept I introduced in a previous presentation to the Cultural Knowledge Workshop at Cranfield University in Shrivenham not long after I arrived in the UK just under six years ago.  Televisual practices, or systems of communication through the use of visual materials and visually interfaced technologies of surveillance and control, are posited as the mechanism or link between various systems for producing, and mapping, The View From Nowhere.

In that previous work at Cranfield University, a work that by the way was received very positively by an audience employed for the most part by the military, including several affiliated with the UK's premier military mapping outfit, the Defence Geographic Centre, or DGC, I presented the idea of counter-mapping (defined as mapping against hegemonic or authoritative maps) as a 'thing' or phenomenon that has shifted in part now, and in practice, to the popular idea of 'blurring', or taking steps to conceal one's identity generally, but quite specifically as well, from mapping platforms like Google Street View.  The DGC manager who had initially invited me to speak admitted only after the presentation that he had himself requested that his house be blurred out from the Google Street View map of his street.

I presented the idea of blurring on Google Street View as having specific historical resonance in places like Germany after reading several stories of anti-Google protests reported in The Guardian.  It should not surprise us that Germany would react this way, or at least that they would react at the level of the neighbourhood, a scale that seemed to work effectively in this case, and whole blocks were blurred.  This is the country that had the Stasi, as I know only really from a single cinematic reference, The Lives of Others.

To construct my ideas of blurring and mapping I used the philosophical writings of Nagel, specifically his book Concealment and Exposure, in which he examines from, as mentioned earlier, a liberal-individualistic perspective, a growing puritanical urge in the US.  Nagel's primary example in one of the essays of which the book is comprised is the exposure of Clinton's personal life and sexual behaviour during the Monica Lewinsky affair that nearly brought Clinton down in the 1990s.  That we subject public figures personal and sexual lives to such scrutiny was (and still is, if we think of Trump and the new scandals that are arising) part of a growing trend to discard considerations of privacy to some perceived greater ends.

For counter-mapping, and the indigenous populations for whom the idea has had most usefulness over the past four or five decades, the ability to conceal sensitive information has been crucial, and was achieved in past by the cartographic sleight-of-hand known as selection.  The cartographer presents only a systematic selection of spatial information but does so without mentioning the fact that it is merely one subset of information about the world, all while, through the power of cartography, making it look like the view within the frame is comprehensive in nature.  It is no small irony that surveyors from European countries originated the idea, selectively surveying out (mapping out) the indigenous populations of the 'new lands' they explored in the national interests of their homelands and colonial bodies.

So, there is a dialectic between concealment and exposure that indigenous North American groups became adept at manipulating, in no small part due to the ready availability of mapping software, in order to portray their own interests in the land in face of historical and ongoing colonisation, all the while concealing the location of key resources that, were they depicted on the map, would be left open to exploitation by 'outside' forces.

To push things further, and I have begun to do so in my forthcoming monograph Contrapuntal Cartographies (MQUP) in which I push Nagel's philosophy further into counter-mapping territory, I have created what I call a 'ladder of objectivity' inspired by another of Nagel's works, The View From Nowhere.  I conceived this ladder as a sort of tool for examining various cartographic and visual hierarchies of mapping, and its starting point is what John Pickles so ironically named the 'Ground Truth'.  These ideas are already worked out in the ongoing writing of the monograph, so what I'm presenting here is a sort of 'preliminary' findings of my research and theoretical framework construction.

One of the key questions that I think naturally arises when reading Nagel is: does the View From Nowhere exist?  I think that Nagel believes that it does: that somewhere out there is a big map of the whole universe and that with better philosophical and scientific techniques we can access it, a bit like Stapledon did in Star Maker, or like Roberts (in a more poststructural and Kantian vein) hinted in The Thing Itself that we might be able to do, but only in the realms of the mind, because we can never really know The Thing Itself, out there, in all its raw and un-representable power.

Going up the ladder, it isn't too hard to say, even for a hardened skeptic, that the other levels 'exist.'  The lower-most of these is itself quite contentious, and that is the idea of 'ground truth', which has the same kind of feel to it as 'thing itself'.  It is essentially unknowable, but I would put it to you that 'ground truth' is more knowable than 'thing itself'.  We can after all, in physical geography, undertake a ground-truthing operation to compare the results of running a model to what we see directly 'on the ground' (empirically).  This is established scientific procedure, and there is no similar procedure for undertaking what we might call a 'thing-itselfing' (except of course in Roberts's The Thing Itself, a sui generis work right up there with Philip Dick's VALIS, but I digress).

Up another step, we arrive at what I like to call 'The View From Somewhere' which at least is empirically accessible, even if only subjectively so.  This is also the starting point from which Nagel takes off in The View From Nowhere, and it is the limit at one extreme of what he constructs as a sort of spectrum running along a subjective-objective axis.   The View From Somewhere is where the artist and the anthropologist reside, it is the individual consciousness in its cage of time and space from which there is, ultimately, no escape, except perhaps through art, science, and philosophy.  In other words, inter-subjective knowledge.

If we move up the ladder and begin to combine views and viewpoints, we can think of what things must look like from the point of view of the CCTV operator's concealed vantage point, the one that lets him or her see, using technologies of the televisual and televisual practices, to begin to select features in the landscape for scrutiny.  These kinds of operators do not work alone.  This is an ethical consideration, for there is always a group pressure to conform to established practice, whether in security or in science.  In art we know, from Denis Cosgrove, that landscapes are similarly constructed through the lenses of class, land, and power.  The counter-mapper, the artist as cartographer, walker or psychogeographer is subject to counter-practices no less than the hegemonic mapper is to those of the state or para-state corporations like Ordnance Survey.

And from there we arrive at the penultimate step, the one at which we hover when we read a map, the classic View From Above, which is so close, but so far from The View From Nowhere.  This is where map enthusiasts reside so much of the time, and it is an oddly hollowed out view, shorn of its 3-dimensionality, frozen in time, a time-slice for all intents and purposes.  Think of a Google Map, or of Ordnance Survey.  These are the classic example.  We tend to confuse, however, the View From Above with the View From Nowhere.  We do this all the time, even though (I would argue) The View From Nowhere does not exist.

That's a nice theoretical framework upon which to hang some fairly abstract examples.  Let's move to something more tangible, more hands-on.  Here I introduce the idea of the name, which is such an important part of mapping, and which was the subject of my last book, The Geography of Names.  Imagine a map without names or words with which to describe features.  The names are very important, but for counter-mapping, in which so often what is at stake is a home-land of some kind, what the locals call the land and its features is just as important as those 'things themselves'.  Reference and referent exist in a dialectical tension that exists along Nagel's subjective-objective continuum in many forms.  An informant who names a feature may be one of only a handful to have that knowledge.  How many people know the name Bealach na ba?  In the far northern Highlands of Scotland, quite a few, it turns out.

My latest ethnographic and geographical research endeavour involves exploring a quite recent tourist route called the North Coast 500.  You have here two views of it, one from the so-called View From Somewhere or even 'ground truth' perspective, and another a GPS-derived Google Earth View From Above.

The five images shown above represent a selection from all along the ladder of objectivity, and they move us closer to being able to discuss the idea not only of The View From Nowhere (a concept I would argue that the Cree have, or at least they have analogous beliefs of a metaphysical nature) but also of Televisual Practices, in both cases grounded in 'truths' of Cree knowledge systems, beliefs, and experiences on the land.  The Cree, with whom I worked from roughly 2007 to 2015 when my monograph Maps and Memes was published, have lived in a settlement referred to as Wemindji after having relocated from a location farther south, which was itself a kind of centralisation in response to the economic activities introduced by the Hudson's Bay Company over several centuries.

The commemorative cultural event referred to as kaachewaapechuu means 'going offshore' and it is a return to the older settlement, whose abandonment was forced by both economic and physical pressures.  Caribou and indeed the numbers of large mammals in the area have been subject to drastic fluctuation and this, in combination with isostatic rebound and subsequent emergence of treacherous shorelines and shallow waters meant the old site was no longer tenable.  But so much of the old site represents a link to traditional knowledge and the distant past that revisiting it is considered by the community to be an important undertaking.  I participated in kaachewaapechuu in 2010 along with several Cree, half-Cree, and white individuals from the community.  I was the only one not strictly speaking of the community, though my presence was part of a Wemindji-McGill partnership ongoing over several years.

The first few slides show images of the long (40km) walk offshore back to Old Factory Bay (Vieux Comptoir in Cree), and the final image is that of the art contest.  Both events, the walk and art contest are part of cultural awareness week in Wemindji.   The final slide above depicts a GPS track of the journey that I entered into the art contest alongside several art works depicting bird's-eye perspective landscapes, maps, and grounded-view perspectives of Wemindji Cree lands.

One of the arguments I'm trying to make here is that the production of the idea of The View From Nowhere relies upon televisual practices for its effectiveness.  There is a visual trope at play that is simultaneously very literal in the sense that the authority of the knowledge relies upon its visuality and visual nature in order to be taken seriously.  The art contest in Wemindji is no less a part of this kind of knowledge production than is a (hypothetical) mock-up of a new map design at the Ordnance Survey.  Both use the televisual, or the communication of visual information through cultural practices and technologies, in order to effectively convey powerful knowledge, or knowledge that has the ability to persuade.

Drones and big data are two hot topics, and are more than just names for trendy things.  They exist on the ladder of objectivity.  I have placed televisual drone productions just below those of so-called 'big data' precisely because the latter are more abstract, and tend to represent what we might call The View From Nowhere, and might indeed incorporate into big-data the images derived from drone flights.  Think, for example, about what a company like Cambridge Analytica is doing with data right now (or did just before the UK voted for Brexit and the US voted for Trump).  The harvesting of massive datasets to which facebook users did not consent with the goal of producing an all-encompassing objective view of reality in order to then influence and change that reality is hubristic to say the least, and at most it is to say it has changed the course of history (should the evidence be shown conclusive in this regard of course).

But stand back for a moment from the big pronouncement and we have another side of the thing called Big Data for producing 'truth'.  This is the idea of metadata, which is really close to the idea of the name.  You have a name, the place where you live has a name, and you can therefore be located.  For many, the idea of being so 'Exposed' (to use the title of Bernard Harcourt's book) is unproblematic.  For many others, and in the wake of Cambridge Analytica and facebook, we are starting to think twice about just giving away that information for free.  It has, and will continue to, influence elections, for example, when in Iceland recently a 'vote now' button started appearing on people's facebook pages, with instructions on how to get to the nearest voting booth when they press the button.  This icon has been seen the world over, and it is essentially fake (but horrifyingly Real at the same time, in the sense of slightly traumatising) news.

So let's step back and look at the idea of names for a moment (this is a segue into the mapping exercise that, if you want to know more, you need to attend my session at the RGS-IBG midterm conference this week in the department of geography at Royal Holloway University of London located in the Queen's Building of the Egham campus).

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Negative Valences V: Constellations

Altered Carbon's antinomian gaps are not as profound as those found in Neuromancer, and in this alone it represents a regression.  The latter, I argued previously, is spatiality embodied, a 'mapping' of a turn in post-humanity that fractures into a noir-ish haze remnants of conventional non-speculative storytelling.  The former is much more conventional but it does have a radical message at its core, one that revolves around the (female) body, and knowledge.  Both have become part of the Mass Cultural Genre System, having reached the screen, but what is entailed in that journey?

For A/C, a zero-gravity knife fight materialises, but this is one part you can tell was made up by the screenies because it rings a lot less true.  For the Matrix, there are fewer such 'tells', but the main most obvious one is just the difference the re-sleeving into cinema makes.  The brothers' magic is in the motion of constellations of bodies, in the timing of the visuals, the visual rhymes.  This really works, and it breaks down some established cinematic tropes at the same time.

Then there is the problem of the name, to which the idea of 'constellation' is related.  To fix the identities of, for example, stacks associated with proper names is to reify consciousness as something separate from the body.  This central conceit of cyberpunk belies its contempt for the (proper) name, it is rooting out the time-tunnels of identity, re-mapping, nay counter-mapping them into constellations, by which content recapitulates form. 

Is to say a cluster of words used to describe 'cyberpunk' formulate a series of related non-categorical pronouncements that are, I would argue, Lockean in nature.  They revolve around property, and the body, as such.  Is my own body my property?  In A/C you mortgage the skin you're in (if you're lucky).  If you're unlucky you just get the skin you're in. 

So, where Dick was Cartesian; the cyberpunks are Lockean.  This much I learned from Foster.   The Lockean 'punctum' has defrayed its cost against the future.  It seems it will keep going, perpetually renewed in a constant updating of forms, evolving, becoming new as though through sleeves re-applied.  This is fantasy.  In reality, in the contra-punctum, there is a certain design space, and it would seem to be filling up.  We need new tropes.

We turn to poetry post-punctum.  But we do so embedded in philosophy, by design.  I have argued before that the transcendental object of speculative fiction is race; but it can equally be theorised in terms of time, space, spacetime, technology, anthropology, gender, and politics.  This constellation of referents forms the scaffolding for philosophical speculative fictions.  Cyberpunk is exemplary in the arena of SF for embodying equally both its poetic and philosophical potentialities. 

Propertarians will, I think, rail at it.  They will rail at its rampant fornicating nakedness in A/C, at the sheer brutality of its representations in Matrix.  They will be hypocritical, puritanical, libertarian, individualistic, misogynistic, and all these will bleed together like neon in a vertical-architectural rainstorm. 

Permutations of poetic-philosophical SF must be allowed to roam free in the design space.  At the same time, identifications of unused portions of that space will lead to fruitful new productions, indeed whole new constellations.  We need to make more use of philosophy (I am an academic), especially that of Locke, Descartes, Wittgenstein, and Adorno.  From the point of view of existence, this has often been implicit until now.  Insofar as cyberpunk is postmodern, they're all in there.

Its the explicitness I'm after, the kind of thing we see in Roberts and Walton.  The poetry is there (explicitly), the philosophy outright.  The design space needs to realise its verticality, its being and becoming, its particulars, its granularity like a new planet in the field of the scope, one we've never seen before, in all its potential for life-form, habitation, symbiosis, compositionality, contrapuntality, and more.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Negative Valences IV: The Transcendental Object of Science Fiction (Race)

Vibranium/Wakanda: this is the novum of Black Panther.  As such, it is a movie with geographical and post-colonial sensibilities.  This much is obvious.

But it points to a certain territoriality at its heart, one that would, in a less Hollywood-style movie, also have to include dystopian elements like the 'resource curse'.  I mean, Avatar didn't shy away from this: that movie was all about conflict associated with places embarrassed by riches. 

The indigenous 'problem' is, of course, a question of perspective, and Black Panther takes the critical perspective of the Wakandans.  Ok, so what are the Wakandans?  They are kind of like black-Swiss or -Canadian, insofar as they tend towards neutrality on the world stage, and offer the world a very specific set of products.  Like Canada, an abundance of resources; like Switzerland, advanced precision technologies in high demand.

The Wakandans are not black white people though.  They are essentially a proud self-reliant African nation that upsets any easy notion of teleology and progress we might bring to this story.

Cognitively, the 'object' of this movie is race.  The latter transcends just about every other aspect of the movie.  In this sense Black Panther is very much of a piece with a system to which the genre (speculative, fictional, fantastical) has been enamoured since its inception.

We have, through generations of iterations now, the idea of a 'race' as a 'species', somehow genetically different from the other species/races in some very specifically delineated ways.  For Wakandans this is, very specifically, Vibranium.

The materiality of race, then, is explicitly 'nativist' is the very autochthonous sense of being from the soil of a place; it is the blood/territory quantum of equivalence that is the very definition of territoriality and identititarianism.

That is, that of which this movie takes part, is itself part of a larger whole (the genre) that historically defines races in terms of other species, but it does so asymmetrically.  The asymmetry at the heart of Black Panther is, I think, what this movie's adorers have latched onto.  It has a critical reversal at its heart that has been a long time coming.  After all, Marvel's productions tend to be pretty white.

These movies are Lord of the Rings-level fantastical, so we need to keep that in perspective.  The battle scenes enlist giant armoured rhinos and spaceships alongside magical spears and spells. 

But I think it lends imagination to a 'black' nation; it builds an 'imagined' community through an act of creation, one that, in turn, enables representations of 'blackness' to proceed on an equal footing to all those other 'white' and 'indigenous' productions with which we are now so overly familiar.

As Black Panther sinks in, roots itself in consciousness, and cognitively reifies the idea of Black Marvel, remember what a revelation this movie is for many people, and what popular appeal it has.  It is explicitly political, playing on a trope of black power that is only admissible due to its fantasy nature.

Because it is 'just a comic book', society can somehow accept a black power message in its midst, in a way that it cannot, for example, put up with raised (black) fists or football players kneeling.

It is a mixed victory. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Negative Valences III: Exact Fantasies of Cyberpunk

For Adorno, the object (let's call it the thing itself) is fixed but the subject changes.  He went 'all the way back' through Heidegger, Husserl, and Hegel, to Kant (Buck-Morss, 1977) in order to 'fix' a philosophy that was failing, but only to fix in the sense of give it a definite object.  How the subject fits onto that 'thing' is itself 'subject' to movements through historical memory, and time. 

What, precisely, then, is the 'subject' of cyberpunk? What is its object?  Are either, or both fixed in and Adornian sense?  I think it will be useful to bring in Benjamin here, as well, to bolster a too 'Adoring' sense of the Adornian in SF, but make no mistake, it is a real thing, as real as the postmodern in cyberspace.  But to go back through Adorno to Benjaimin is, I think, productive.

Here I mean quite (again), precisely, Benjamin's idea of the Dialectical Image (Buck-Morss, 1989), here for both Adorno, and for cyberpunk.  For the latter I sample both writing and cinema/television, including William Gibson and Richard Morgan; and works inspired by their writing, namely, The Matrix, and Altered Carbon. 

So, how do ideas of exact fantasy and dialectical image work in cyberpunk?  I believe we can tie this to the idea of the 'techno-surreal' (to bring in yet another key term).  Techno-surrealism is what makes SF not just another kind of surrealism.  Mieville's novels ride this line in a very fine way.  The technological side of things is not prominent in Mieville, but it structures things in a way that gently place it into a whole other system of genres (one might call them 'weird' too) (Rider, 2017; Luckhurst, 2017).

Can we theorise the novum itself as a dialectical image? The novum of Altered Carbon appears to be the stack, but it is also what the stack enables, namely (wait for it, it's not immortality) extended generational interaction.  If you can live forever, there's a lot less impetus to pass on your knowledge to your offspring because the knowledge will always still be around for the younger generation to consult.  So it is about longevity of information.  Which really is a fantasy.  The dialectical image, one that examines the object (historical memory) might include all those different kinds of 'chip' the metonymise memory into subjects and in Altered Carbon, quite literally drive the action.

I would argue that longevity of information is decreasing, and here the Adornian aspect becomes prominent.  For the exact fantasy, based on 'hard' (computer) science is one that sees computing power and memory capacity going through the roof in line with Moore's Law, but at the same time ephemeralising and rates of change themselves change and evolve beyond recognition.  We recognise neither the age nor the provenance of the bodies with which we interact. 

If cyberpunk is really about knowledge transmission through time and space, I would argue that Gibsonian cyberpunk is more 'spatial' while Morganian is more 'temporal'.  But if this is about spatio-temporal 'objectification' then I think this Adornian notion of 'exact fantasy' is also just as much about bodies and how we relate to them.  And this, as an object of knowledge, is epistemologically and quite fundamentally knowable very specifically from the woman's perspective (as the evolving historical subject whose 'body' is objectified).  Thus the images of woman above, and below.

I do think Blade Runner is quite implicated in what I'm saying here (a kind of Adornian-Benjaminian feminist argument that, cheekily comes from me, a man), both the old and new (2049) iterations.  Not only the object (woman's body) but also the subject (male gaze, woman's positioning) and power play out in interesting ways here, but it is indicative, I think, that the Blade Runners have more appeal for male than for female viewers (the Guardian reported low attendance numbers upon release of the latter film, putting it down to primarily male interest).

We have, then, a transcendental object (Adorno, the body) which can be represented as a dialectical image (Benjamin, the technology) with both feminist and anthropological import for a 'whole'.  But what is that whole, to which these particulars must refer, if we are to remain properly Adornian?

Unlikely as it might sound, I think we could enrol Atwoodian sensibility to the effort here.  Think about what is happening, specifically, in the TV version of The Handmaid's Tale.   The whole here is society, and social implications of absolute control of women's body is what is at stake. 

You could also, even more controversially, enroll something like @RuPaul 's spoof of the handmaids, in which drag queens dressed as handmaids take the piss at their own representatives (the Queens), but at the same time re-assert a kind of masculine hegemony, one which is capable of performing across gender divides.

RuPaul is quite specifically 'of the genre' if we consider the following elements: wonder, imagination, and the infinite, all capacities of 'new' systems of genre that re-map power, bodies, and society (Rieder, 2017).

If the particular subject is dialectically related to the whole through the relatively fixed object, in what sense is cyberpunk then negatively capable of performing this philosophy?  Well, the answer is embedded in the question, which it begs: it is the poetry of cyberpunk that does it and, as such, it works through both metonymy and metaphor (Roberts, 2017).  I believe Roberts has 'nailed' it, by which I mean a really capable definition of "science fiction" one that leverages poetics of part/whole relationships and applies them to both the action (metonymically, in sequence) and the tropes (metaphorically, at a 'higher' level beyond the action) of the new system of genres that is SF (here beyond 'mere' science fiction).

Cyberpunk is poetic.  That's not such a stretch.  But the poetics enable part-whole relationships to reflect (dialectically and negatively) society back upon itself, but without doing so exactly.  A principle of identity, a minimum difference operates such that (e.g. we could call it stereoscopically, or in terms of a kind of parallax, vis-a-vis Zizek) that very difference is what enables (again very paradoxically) identification.  It is as though one is moving toward a goal (i.e. in cyberspace, in a new body, or a new gender as it were) by introducing a small spatial offset, the measurement of whose angle actually enables more confidence in arriving at that goal.

What is the goal?  To avoid goals, for one (i.e. a kind of principle of non-teleology), but also to be critical of the 'goals' of society as portrayed in popular media, in cultural productions, and in discourse.  Speculative fiction, negatively capable through its use of techno-surreal metaphors and action is uniquely capable of 'arriving' so paradoxically through the non-arrival of each spectacular event.

And within that non-arrival, the action sequence, the set of particulars that drives the 'thing' forward: the stack, the new body, the ego in cyberspace, each metonymical fragment hitting higher registers as the poetic image emerges.  The image of society is an inverse-fantastical remnant of some kind of failure, and that is recapitulated in philosophies of 'the end'.  Cyberpunk is a philosophy of the end, and as such attention must be paid to not only it, but its alter-egos, its Atwoods and its Ashbys (see previous review).  

Buck-Morss, Susan.  1977.  The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt Institute.  New York: Free Press.

Buck-Morss, Susan.  1989.  The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Luckhurst, Roger.  2017.  The Weird: A Dis/orientation.  Textual Practice.  Vol. 31(6). 1041-1061.

Rieder, John.  2017.  Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System.  Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan.

Roberts, Adam.  2017.  How I Define "Science Fiction".  Morphosis.  http://amechanicalart.blogspot.co.uk/2017/08/how-i-define-science-fiction.html

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Breathing her name with a sigh: on Ashby's Hwa

@MadelineAshby's Company Town (recommended to me by Jessica Langer of Centennial College in Toronto), is an exploration of what it means to be Hwa, Ashby's main character in this excellent addition to cyberpunk.  I mean, for me, it was Hwa that made the book worth reading, but it is really also the excellent craft and artistry that is apparent on each and every page, from the dialogue to descriptions of settings, and not least the action.

This is an action-packed book that rocked my world with its unflinching depictions of fighting, like stuff straight out of the Matrix, but the protagonist here is an emotionally vulnerable skull-cracker hired to protect "the youngest Lynch", a member of a family that controls a vast set of oil rigs off the coast of Labrador.  This setting is my other favourite thing about CT

These rigs are vast and interconnected, and they go 'all the way down' into the sea floor, in a dense amalgamation of architectures, dwellings, streets, public spaces, and just about anything else you can find in a 'normal' city, but here set on what we usually associate with equipment for extracting crude from beneath earth's crust that inconveniently happens to also be covered by ocean water.  These rig-cities are unique, from what I can tell, in literature but I'm sure there's something out there in the SF back catalogue that is similar.

There's also a very strong Canadian element to CT, from the references to provincial employment and union practices (it seems a lot of the people in this dystopian future are unionised, which is therefore by definition not so dystopian), to the way people speak and interact.  Though there was a delightful inclusion of Scottish-inflection and choice of words as well, that is well-nigh Nova-Scotian in orientation (the extensive use of the affirmative 'aye' for 'yes' for example).

The density of the cities came off very well, and this density is reflected in the language and in the action of the book.  Action sequences are varied, and very realistic, and backed up in the character by extensive knowledge of training regimens and eating habits of runners, fighters, and the like.  This is really a big appeal for me, because I'm also a runner and as a runner I feel compelled to build my strength as well, so I don't wither away.  I was rooting for Hwa in the same way.  She makes me feel strong, stronger than I am by a long shot, but relatable.

So you have Hwa the vulnerable fighter who is 'organic' for the most part; and who finds love; and whose aesthetic concerns about her own body tie very much into feminist concerns with the social construction of women's bodies and empowerment.  Oh, and then there's the very believable depictions of vulnerability, not least in the involvement of both Hwa's mother and best friend in sex work.

I know from having grown up in resource towns in British Columbia what it is like in those towns.  They had a reputation for violence, and in a place like Fort McMurray, there are just a lot of men with a lot of money looking to spend it, drinking a lot, and paying for sex.  They're not all that way, mind you, but I would never want to live in a town like Fort McMurray (I told lots of friends from down east this, and was often met with bewilderment: why not! there's so much money there! Everyone worshipping the 'rich' resource towns). 

I could relate to the Company Town itself, in other words, despite being a bit of a misfit in my own hometown of Terrace BC, a logging and service town with a history of the more ragged sides of resource-richness itself.

I'm not an expert in cyberpunk, but I've read enough to know that this is an excellent volume that while sitting uneasily within the sub-genre of cyberpunk, also straddles some other areas of literature.  It is, for one, Can-Lit, and I mean this in the most positive of ways (i.e. not in a Margaret Atwood-y way, it is very far from that).  The best Canadian literature is speculative and this can sometimes (for me) mean avant-garde, but more often it means engagingly well-crafted and innovative and forward looking.  I put both Andre Alexis's Fifteen Dogs and some Canadian indigenous science fiction into the same category (of Can-Lit). 

Company Town is, therefore, post-colonial in sensibility and post-human in outlook.  It fast-forwards, using Hwa as the button, to what a future might look like in which power takes many new and ever-more violent forms, in which invisibility is possible and used in frightening ways; terrorism is rife and even more unpredictable in the fluidity of its spacetimes; and the line between friend and foe is terrifyingly vague.  In the middle of all that is Hwa, and this is profoundly reassuring.

Hwa's being is shelled, both literally and metaphorically.  It is shelled from outside by the many layerings and augmentations of the 'new reality' of future technologies; and from within by Hwa's own insecurities and traumas.  The latter drive her, while the former seem to just bewilder (but productively). 

The materiality and mirroring of our current realities is very sophisticated here, a gritty fragmentation of society crystallised in the offshore dystopian pessimism of so much gone wrong.  The dialectic of time, and of the object is given a new evolution in this iteration, I can only hope for much more and many more new books, I'm hoping and wondering what the next ones will be.  Keep an eye on this extremely promising and accomplished writer.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Negative Valences II: Speculation

Speculative fiction is poetic.  It is infused with technological surrealism, and it produces cognitive estrangement.  For all these reasons, and more, SF is therefore negative.  It is negatively capable, poetically speaking; it negates what came before in a hypothetical flurry of planned obsolescence; it estranges us from our everyday lives, negating them (for the better).

Dialectically (and with Adorno) the negative plays out in the particular, in the granularity of the vision being put forward by the author; this is universally true, from Gibson's postmodern cyber-shards of action in Neuromancer, Spook Country, and The Peripheral; to Drew Hayden Taylor's postcolonial SF; to Philip Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and other works.

These reflective shards of technological-poetic capability perform the negative function in literature; in some new SF, and in Adorno (and this is one reason I think he might have been ahead of his time) the granularity, and therefore the quality of the dispersal and the overall pattern produced from that dispersal, is becoming much finer.

I won't limit myself to writing here; when I watch Altered Carbon on Netflix I see specific resonances with both Blade Runner and The Matrix, both of which are unavoidable foundations in work purporting (or otherwise) to be of the cyberpunk genre.  But I also see refinement of the poetic and material sensibilities at play in the visual-textual narrative both in-depth and at-surface.

Because the surface matters, and the extent to which one can retain the surface level of the techno-surreal, at the same time as maintaining both depth and its fine-grained fracturing beyond simple mirroring, is the measure of where both the genre (cyberpunk) and the movement (SF) both need to go.  The particularity is here in the shadows, of necessity, because our future is opaque.

Futures always are, after all.  SF contains much adumbration, but it is to a large extent false consciousness, based upon a truncated (almost) bourgeois sense of the taken-for-grantedness of the world.  The best SF will introduce, perhaps, an equally truncated but crucially different proletarian ambi-tagonist into the picture.  Look at Madeline Ashby's Company Town for an excellent example.

With Adorno, the darkness of the bourgeois and the proletarian futures meet in a churning visual mashup.  Ontologies and typologies of new creatures, machines, and ideal-essential weirdnesses must spawn along cladistical-nomothetic lines of flight/escape, becoming path dependent in due course.  This is the critical move, one that zooms out to take in the ever-expanding big speculative picture.

We do this again with Adorno, introducing the relentless class analysis from within an always-already upset and moving aesthesis-prosthesis of the posthuman.  As examples proliferated the prosthetic limb of genre builds like a space-arm into bizarre shapes that over time can no longer grasp.  They are abandoned in whole-planet rubbish tips like the one we saw on Blade Runner 2049.

Not far enough ahead in the future in my opinion, as the actors wither and disappear in puffs of dust.  Far far in the future is where we need to go, like Wells' time-machine protagonist.  Only that far will break the line, will disassemble the useless space-arms SF can so quickly and tendentiously become.  Its being is a facade, like all maps, but where is the ground truth?

(The Ground Truth is 'out there', far away, with Olaf Stapledon.  SF authors/writers should always choose to shoot just this high)

This set of blog posts will explore nodes that connect Adorno, SF, and the idea of ground truth (aka The Thing Itself) into a new counter-map.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Negative Valences I

I'm reading Adorno's Negative Dialectics, the translation available for free online (http://members.efn.org/~dredmond/ndtrans.html).  This set of notes on the book represents the jottings of someone (myself, an academic) who uses philosophy somewhat opportunistically and pragmatically as a way out of theoretical impasses.

Dennett and Foucault had two very different places in my book Maps and Memes.  Dennett, and cultural evolutionary theory, supplied the memes; Foucault supplied concepts around discursive power formations and assemblage.  In The Geography of Names, ideas from Kripke and Wittgenstein (aka Kripkenstein) were applied to a problem in geographical thought.

I have a new challenge, and it is dialectical.  I am going to use dialectics to be critical of contrapuntality, having begun to see the latter as a reified form of consciousness in postcolonial studies.  Contrapuntality relies upon conservative musical tropes to supply ideas about margin and centre, and how power operates in and through cultural productions derived therefrom.

The dialectics I have used to this point (in my forthcoming monograph Contrapuntal Cartographies) have been too obviously geographical, and a bit heterodox, to be truly effective.  Soja and Jameson were to gallop in at an appropriate moment to provide the dialectical matériel  after an a reasonable amount of time spent deconstructing Heidegger, Lefebvre, Olsson, and Bachelard, among others.

But then I started having these encounters with the Frankfurt School thinkers, starting with Benjamin, and his idea, apparently from Arcades Project, of the dialectical image.  The latter is a visual-material ideological production that Benjamin had a hard time defining himself, but that in essence challenges, in a very compact form, historical contingencies of all manner of commodifications of daily life.

Adorno, apparently was very deeply influenced by both Benjamin, and also by Schonberg (Buck-Morss, 1977), whose music seemed to epitomise artistic freedom under the constraints of a logical-critical system of composition.  A lot like Adorno's system of composition itself.  This is to say that reading Negative Dialectics is tough going.  But after the first half of the introduction it got a lot better.

Kant is very much front and centre, even though it he is not always named, the very Kantian 'the-thing-itself' recurs frequently in relation to later idealistic interventions (mostly Hegel and some Heidegger) and earlier dialectical revolutions (Plato is alluded to but less often named).  Between the universal and the particular, Adorno stays very much on the side of the latter.

The particular is the starting point and the remainder, and the two are not coincident.  We move through universalisms, but never to an overarching one.  In this way Adorno's thought movement-method stays true to itself.  It is consistent, if contradictory, but the contradictions are subject to a double movement, a polyphony and a dialectic of both thought and the thing itself.

Both layers are constantly moving, like a map; and like the critique, the deconstruction of that map.  I have identified several overtly geographical metaphors, and I am documenting these on social media (twitter) as I go.  I am reading ND alongside Buck-Morss, and the next post in this mini-series will examine pages 67-136, Relationship to Ontology.

Buck-Morss, Susan.  1977.  The Origin of Negative Dialectics.  New York: The Free Press.