Friday, 20 February 2009


This piece in The Atlantic Online is quite fascinating. It considers the shifting ethnic demographics of the United States, with reference to the possible emergence of a white "identity crisis". While provocative, I am more interested in the future situating of identity politics more generally in relation to the social imaginary of "multiculturalism". An useful early reference point in this context is David Hollinger's Post Ethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism. More recent social theory (e.g. Habermas, Gerard Delanty) has treated cosmopolitan citizenship in a manner that may be compatible with the "beyond" in Hollinger's title (which should be considered too, I believe, in light of the references in my earlier "Disco Marxism" post). I did at least manage a chuckle at the "Tea Partay"

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Metal Monsters Storm Bangkok's MBK Centre

I'm on holiday at the moment so haven't had much time to check in at the blog. I was startled to encounter these astonishing metal figurines as I wandered through an enormous mall to escape the oppressive outside heat. I asked the guy in the shop if it was possible to take some photos and he pointed sagely to the "No Photos Permitted" sign, so I had to discreetly use the zoom lens from as far away as possible. One of these pics didn't use the flash, as I didn't want to be too obvious, but the loss of clarity in that case made me switch it back on for the better shot.

There's probably a whole cluster of issues to unpack here with regard to the "glocalization" of monsters, as they appear here in a Bangkok shopping mall....but I was equally fascinated to hear the owner's account of how they will ship these works to your home country, as they can't be disassembled, and they weigh in at over 200 kilos, and stand at more than 250cm tall- as for cost, prohibitively expensive, as you can well imagine. There were a whole bunch of xenomorphs on display as well but they were hidden within the (to use an appropriately biomorphic horror metaphor) bowels of the shop, and hence safe from the camera's prying eye. Damn...

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Blanchot's "The Proper Use of Science Fiction" (1959)

Incredible analysis from Blanchot here. I regard him in this instance as intimating some of the concerns I touched on my 2 "carbon chauvinism" posts. But it also breathes new life into what I regard as the most interesting and enduring philosophical questions, in part because they touch on issues familiar to sociologists and anthropologists. I'm thinking here of systems theorists, along with the profane and the sacred as foregrounded in the writings of Durkheim, and "the liminal" as featured in the writings of Victor Turner. All it took was a PhD for me to shape up to this legacy as in some sense constituting a theory of creative action.

Then as now, the questions of interest to me: What is a system? How does it negotiate its inside/outside? What is transgression, and how can it be situated, if at all, with regard to conceptions of "other spaces"?  I wrote in my thesis something about Benjamin Noye's discussion of Bataille and "the summit", so it is clear today that I also need to revise my notes in order to come to terms with the meaning of "the limit" described by Blanchot in the passage to follow.

I'm taking off tomorrow, so I can't even begin to touch on Cyclonopedia, which derridata bequeathed to me yesterday...suffice to say, I'm intrigued by the discussion of "exteriority" in that book as well.

Shelving these concerns for the moment, let me just add [in Twitter mode here] that I'm intrigued by what I regard as an approximation of the "performative contradiction" I mentioned in my 2nd carbon chauvinism post (see the conclusion of this excerpt from Blanchot). In any case, clearly these are issues that every science fiction writer has to engage with at some stage, and I suspect the same might be said about the imaginative capacity of xenobiologists to make allowance for the possible existence of lifeforms that confound their existing taxonomies.

Whenever science fiction guides us through space and the future as in a beyond where we are puerilely detached from ourselves, it proves vulnerable to all the jibes that Marx reserved for religion and philosophy. It is curious to see with what simplicity the great myths of transcendence learn to survive in these hypothetical worlds consecrated to immanence: that is interesting, and disappointing as well. ...What would happen if man suddenly encountered a superior being? The most common, and, imaginatively speaking, most impressive solution consists in finding signs of superiority in the lowest forms of life- insects, larvae, microbes- something which cannot but recall to us an immense chapter of theology.  But here we clearly see the import of this way of inverting the problem: it is that the problem itself is absurd, it is that human consciousness will never be able to convince itself, upon discovering it, of a superiority of other species; for this is the characteristic feature of consciousness: because it is null and void, it is always equal to all that is, the biggest and the smallest. Man is the summit- virtual or real, it little matters which. The idea of God, the idea of the microcosm, are only translations of this impossibility of consciousness being, in itself, inferior to that of which it is conscious. There thus remains only the trap of those species said to be inferior: if we admit, indeed, that among the beings known to us there are some that are ontologically beneath us, that means that they are just as much above us: these are truly our gods, and the literature of the fantastic makes use of this revelation in order to astound us for a moment. But the dramatic core of such visions remains this: man [sic] can never encounter a being superior to himself; this means that he will always be superior to everything, given that such superiority constitutes precisely the limit he tries in vain to surpass....

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Grzegorz Jonkajtys

Sometime back in the 1980s I can remember the Monthly Film Bulletin (as it was then known, before morphing into Sight & Sound) alerting me to the animated films of the Brothers Quay. Well, here are 2 pieces by another director that are absolutely stunning. I shouldn't say too much about thematic issues here, as it could spoil for a viewer the way the narratives play out, and I'd also recommend watching first before visiting Grzegorz's website to inspect further examples of his amazing designs. Not to be missed.

In the next film, Legacy, note the reference to Alien, as a reconnaisance mission responds to a signal from a remote planetoid.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Labor relations in the dreamworlds of late capitalism; a salutary reminder

Remember Bart Simpson as the "I Didn't Do It" star, having to first do his apprenticeship to pampered celebrities, who abused him on the slightest, narcissistic pretext? "I told you, I'm lactose intolerant. Now come over here so I can abuse you some more!!" Shades of that again here with Christian Bale going berserk on the set of Terminator 4. There's already speculation of the damage it could do to his career unless the mask can be quickly nailed back on even tighter (a la another notorious couch jumping megastar).

But why bother putting this up here, isn't it just dime a dozen Hollywood gossip (and a bit late too given how it was leaked around February 2)? To me it all depends on the spin you put on it. The real issue here seems to be how it serves as a reminder of how futuristic visions, be they utopian or dystopic, are realized through a class based intramundane reality. This spans all the way from the film in question, with the star abusing an assistant director of photography, to attempts to live inside "dream worlds" on a mass scale, as in the evil paradise of Dubai (or Hong Kong, where guest workers are hidden away by being forced to reside in chicken coops on the rooftops of their employers).

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Machines Making Gods

Back in 2007 I posted something about how, ironically, someone had made a Philip K Dick android. The android subsequently went AWOL, with the most likely explanation behind this unfortunate incident been that someone nabbed it as a souvenir during the publicity tour. I've just watched some video footage, which made me chuckle in light of the highly stilted interaction patterns with the [human] hosts.

By happy coincidence I've since come across an article which crystallises a lot of the interests on this blog. Here then is a fascinating excerpt from James Burton's "Machines Making Gods: Philip K. Dick, Henri Bergson and Saint Paul", as featured in Theory Culture & Society, 2008, 25 pp262-284. Particularly intriguing is the identification of fabulative transcendence as a means of challenging the "sacral economy" of the biopolitical. This leaves me pondering the compatibility of the article's closing quotation from Bergson, with the closing 2 paragraphs in another piece concerning the role of Intelligent Design in recent science fiction. I'm starting to think that Dick himself may have recognised a degree of concordance, if one accepts that his own opposition to "mechanization" was not premised on a rejection tout court of the technoscience he envisioned playing an increasingly central future role.

Note to self: commence literature search for comparative analysis of Dick and Charles Stross (along with Walter Jon Williams et al).

"A crucial difference between Dick’s Black Iron Prison and Weber’s iron cage is that the former bears within it a necessarily irreducible metaphysical aspect, whereas Weber addresses questions of the metaphysical or religious from a sociological and historical perspective; likewise,
fetishism for Marx is an aspect of capitalism’s mystification of the commodity, which his analysis aims to penetrate and understand in material terms.

As Milbank argues, modern capitalism is doubly religious, not only in its dependence on the belief in fetishes and the worship of the commodity, but in its apparent need ‘to buttress itself with the approval and connivance of actual religion’ (2007: 1).8 While Dick’s vision likewise points towards Empire or capitalism’s ability to draw on a quasi-religious power of deception – in maintaining the illusion of its own non-existence – the vision also attributes to the Black Iron Prison a genuine metaphysical reality.

If contemporary capitalism, paralleling the Roman Empire, maintains its biopolitical control partially in an apparently transcendent mode (with the help of what Milbank calls a ‘sacral economy’), then any hope of resisting or transforming this control must also make use of some aspect of transcendence. I noted above that, for Milbank, ‘there can only be an authentically religious route out of the biopolitical’ (2007: 25). My argument here converges with Milbank on the necessity of this transcendent element, yet differs in seeing this possible escape-route as opened up by fabulative transcendence, that is, a thought or fictionalizing of transcendence that may have effects on the immanent world. Since fabulation indicates a saving power of fiction, it may indeed take a religious form, but the use of fabulation as a means of challenging the dominance of mechanization and the hegemony of Empire need not be restricted to such a form.

Bergson concludes Two Sources thus:

Men do not sufficiently realize that their future is in their own hands. Theirs is the task of determining first of all whether they want to go on living or not. Theirs the responsibility, then, for deciding if they want merely to live, or intend to make just the extra effort required for fulfilling, even on this refractory planet, the essential function of the universe, which is a machine
for making gods. (MR: 317)19"

Milbank, J. (2007) ‘Paul Against Biopolitics’, Centre of Theology and Philosophy,
University of Nottingham, online papers, URL (consulted January 2008):