Welcome to dulltopia and my two favourite angels

angelus novusMy essay ‘Dulltopia’ from the ‘Global Dystopias’ issue of Boston Review is now available online – it questions the claims made by Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek about how boring contemporary dystopias are, then imagines these luminaries are right about how boring contemporary dystopias are, and then turns to slow cinema and the examples of Peter B. Hutton’s At Sea (2007) and Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead (2015), the latter of which I adore.

The essay ends with an allusion to Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, every Marxist’s favourite angel thanks to Walter Benjamin, but in this context dismisses it in favour of an angel every bit as cool from Albrecht Durer’s Melencolia 1 – she is soooooooo bored and really pissed off and her dog is kinda funny looking.
Melencolia_I_(Durero)

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Žižek and the dawning light not quite dawning; or, a little self-knowledge is a dangerous – but unlikely – thing

Admit it. For the longest time you’ve suspected there’s a reason these two men have never been photographed together.

 

Ben Stiller, of all people, was the first to draw attention to the rhetorical strategy that the professional contrarian and incessant Lacanian shares with the Sphinx. But since it pissed Stiller off so much, we were so busy relishing his impotent fury that we failed to think through the implications – that beneath the Sphinx’s masks must lurk not the excellent Wes Studi but a certain Slovenian philosopher.

Over the last decade, fractures have appeared in Žižek’s work that suggest even he is beginning to suspect himself of being one of the Mystery Men. For example, 116 pages into Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador 2008) Žižek writes:

It is, however, all too easy to score points in this debate using witty reversals which can go on indefinitely.

However, the remainder of the book and many of his subsequent pronouncements  merely indicate the depths of his denial.

Re-reading Tolkien 3: The Hobbit, chapters 2-6

Hobbit_coverRe-reading Tolkien 1 and 2.

Mostly it had been as good as May can be, even in merry tales, but now it was cold and wet. …
‘To think it will soon be June,’ grumbled Bilbo. (47)

I swear the delay was not because I was waiting until I could quote that. It is merely the serendipitous silver lining to the rain clouds emptying themselves over Bristol.

My last post on The Hobbit ended by questioning whether the whole book could be quite as delightful as the psychosexual smorgasbord of the first chapter. And I’m afraid the answer is no. Although there is still plenty to comment upon, incidents and episodes have rather taken over.

The Battle of Phallic Accoutrements rages on. While both Thorin and Gandalf are given mighty swords, Bilbo takes a blade that ‘would have made only a tiny pocket knife for a troll, but it was as good as a short sword for the hobbit’ (60) – and only becomes really snigger worthy when he is lost in the caves under the Misty Mountains:

But in slapping all his pockets and feeling all round himself for matches his hand came on the hilt of his little sword – the little dagger that he got from the trolls, and that he had quite forgotten; nor fortunately had the goblins noticed it, as he wore it inside his breeches. (91)

Elsewhere, the anal fixation continues. There is an awful lot of wandering around in dank – some might say cloacal – caves, and an obsession about entrances, of gaining access to them, controlling what passes through them, and about squeezing through narrow passages (losing ones buttons in doing so). Probably the less said about rings at this point the better.

One of the curious things re-reading the novel after all this time is that nothing has happened that I do not remember, but I only remember it as it is happening. And certain things have changed because of the passage of time. So when Bilbo decides to embrace the role of burglar and pickpocket one of the trolls – the entire species are Cockerneys, it seems – the whole Žižek thing comes flooding back.

Years ago, I was the journal editor entrusted with the task of asking him to revise and resubmit an article in which he imagines a scene in a porn movie in which a vagina suddenly starts to speak. My favourite part of the process was asking him to not just make such things up, but to actually make the effort to watch a talking-vagina porn movie, such as the excellently-titled Chatterbox. (Sadly, he declined; the book from which the essay was extracted had already been accepted for publication, and he was already busy on the next one or the one after that.)

But now, I see vaginas loquens the way Haley Joel Osment sees dead people. They are everywhere, and sometime you just can’t move for them .

Bilbo plucked up courage and put his hand in William’s enormous pocket. There was a purse in it, as big as a bag to Bilbo. “Ha!” thought he warming up to his new work as he lifted it carefully out, “this is a beginning!”
It was! Trolls’ purses are the mischief, and this was no exception. “’Ere, ’oo are you?” it squeaked… (52-3)

Though I am not sure “Trolls’ purse” will ever catch on as a euphemism, or that it should.

The next chapter is called “Queer Lodgings” – I can hardly wait.

***

And there is this sentence, probably the finest one in the novel so far, and certainly one that struck me when I was young:

When they got to the top of it [the far river bank], leading their ponies, they saw that the great mountains had marched down very near to them. (63)

Well played, JRR, well-played.

(I also have some thoughts about the description of the goblins, race, species and so on, but I will wait until I have seen more of how Tolkien does these things.)

Part 4

Afrocyberpunk 2: Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net (1988), part one

BKTG17418If Gibson’s Neuromancer omits Africa and its peoples, including the diaspora, Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net (1988) might seem like a step in the right direction, at least inasmuch as it spends one long section in Grenada and (after visiting Singapore) another in Mali (with a brief snatch of coda passing through Algeria to Morocco). Intended as – or at least praised for being – a more realistic take on a global cyberpunk future, the novel offers an improbable variant on that old saw attributed to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek: it is easier for Sterling to imagine Americans happily giving up their guns than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. The novel is set in the 2020s, after the ‘Abolition’ (of nuclear weapons and conventional small arms). Under a new world order (that is pretty much the old world order but with fewer issues of national sovereignty getting in the way of a liberal-ish neoliberal hegemony) dominated by the ‘developed world’ which at least makes a point of feeding the ‘developing world’, albeit on ‘scop’, a cheaply produced single cell protein – ‘the national food of the Third World’ (38). If no one is exactly racing home to enjoy their dinner, no one need go hungry any more. Except in Africa, where such ‘aid’ enables the unscrupulous to accumulate power.

And that’s the problem. The future in Sterling’s novel is of the demoralising, predatory kind projected by the futures industry. As Kodwo Eshun writes, in such projections, typically produced by NGOs and multinationals,

African social reality is overdetermined by intimidating global scenarios, doomsday economic projections, weather predictions, medical reports on AIDS, and life-expectancy forecasts, all of which predict decades of immiserization. … Within an economy that runs on SF capital and market futurism, Africa is always the zone of the absolute dystopia. There is always a reliable trade in market projections for Africa’s socioeconomic crises. (291-2)

Such projections usually propose corporate intervention – the extension and intensification of the market – as the only possible solution.

Sterling introduces his future Africa through precisely such a modelling tool, David’s Worldrun game,

a global simulation. Worldrun has been invented as a forecasting tool for development agencies, but a glamorized version had found its way onto the street. … Long strips of the Earth’s surface peeled by in a simulated satellite view. Cities glowed green with health or red with social disruption. Cryptic readouts raced across the bottom of the screen. Africa was a mess. ‘It’s always Africa, isn’t it?’ [Laura] said. (10)

Later, David explains to a Pole called Andrei Tarkovsky (!) that in the game,

Protein tech, like [scop], is one of your major tools for world stability. Without it, there are food riots, cities crumble, governments go down . . . And not just in Africa, either. (137)

The sense, implicit in this comment, of Africa’s desperate exceptionalism, that it is the benchmark against which to measure the extent to which you have escaped disaster, barbarism, backwardness is everywhere in the novel. Describing the wired world of 2020 – a passage which is quite endearingly clunky in so badly missing the extrapolative mark – Sterling notes (more or less focalised through Laura) that ‘Most of the world, even Africa, was wired for telex these days’ (22). Rizome, the multinational for which David and Laura work, has decided to ‘negotiate’ with the data havens; Emerson explains

‘That’s a modern solution. It worked for the arms race, after all. It has been working for the Third World.’
‘Except for Africa,’ David said. (45)

After the lodge David and Laura run near Galveston is attacked, the mayor, Magruder, objects that terrorism ‘isn’t supposed to come down any more. … Maybe in Africa. … Not here.’ (70-71). The spook sent by Vienna (a metonym for the international conventions/agencies keeping the new world order in order) to investigate the attack muses about all ‘of those millions and millions of unfired NATO bullets … Too many even for the African market, eh?’ (77) – a point reiterated when Laura, in a Malian jail, overhears an execution:

They would often shoot a single man with five or six machine guns; their ammunition was old, with a lot of duds that tended to choke up the guns. They had a worldful of ammunition, though. All the ammunition of fifty years of the Cold War had ended up here in African war zones. Along with the rest of the junk. (355)

When Laura speaks obliquely about the attack to a mercenary, saying ‘I saw a man killed by a machine gun, once’, he replies ‘Oh, really? You’ve been to Africa?’ (270). Later, on the rogue nuclear sub that takes her to Mali, another mercenary tells her the story of how he ‘ended up in Africa’:

‘Africa,’ Laura repeated. The very sound of it scared her. (331)

There has also been a devastating AIDS-like retrovirus, spread by horny sailors and ‘harbor hookers’:

But the world had the virus pretty much whipped now. Contained anyway. Under control.
Except in Africa. (334)

When Laura demands that her accidental rescuer Gresham helps Katje, a ‘dying woman’, he replies: ‘You’re in Africa now. Dying women aren’t rare here.’ (382)

Lying behind all the globetrotting shenanigans is a group called FACT (not the Federation Against Copyright Theft, but the Free Army of Counter-Terrorism) who have effectively taken over Mali and are at war with Azania (as South Africa is now called). FACT not only have a nuclear sub, but have tested one of their warheads in the desert and are – with the collusion of an embroiled Vienna – contemplating using it in the war. Laura and Katje were being taken to the test-site to appear in a propaganda video about this nuclear capacity when Gresham and his Tuareg warriors attacked the convoy in which they were prisoners. Fleeing with her unintentional rescuers through the Sahara, Laura eventually looks around her:

Time passed, and the heat mounted sullenly as the miles passed. They were leaving the deep Sahara and crossing country with something more akin to soil. This had been grazing land once – they passed the mummies of dead cattle, ancient bone stick-puppets in cracked rags of leather.
She had never realised the scale of the African disaster. It was continental, plantery. They had travelled hundreds of miles without glimpsing another human being, without seeing anything but a few wheeling birds and the tracks of lizards. She’d though Gresham was being cavalier, deliberately brutal, but she understood now how truly little he must care for FACT and their weaponry. They lived here, it was their home. Atomic bombardment could hardly have made it worse. It would only make more of it. (386-387)

There is more to say about Islands in the Net, and I will do so. But for the moment, let that stand as its futures-industry-style representation of Africa: atomic bombardment could hardly have made it worse.

Works cited
Kodwo Eshun, ‘Further Considerations of Afrofuturism’. CR: The New Centennial Review 3.2 (2003), 287-302.
Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net. London: Legend, 1989.