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Thought Projectors 7

March 13, 2017

 In the last set of Thought Projectors, I commented that I felt that my writing was already in the process of changing. At the time I wasn’t sure what that meant but it seems to have played out as a slight re-organisation of the things I want to think about, write about, and do.

My usual supplier of review copies having fallen ominously quiet, I am not feeling to urge to write about film quite as much. I still watch and enjoy the occasional film but I must admit that Hollywood’s creative implosion and the long, slow, ossification of the art house film scene mean that writing about film feels considerably less urgent than writing about other things. At least for the moment.

The Shadow Clarke Award is taking up considerably more head-space than I thought it would. I expected my engagement with the project to be a bit like producing an almost weekly IZ column but I’ve found that even when I’m not reading or writing, I’m thinking about science fiction and discussing it behind the scenes with my fellow shadow jurors. I had hoped that the project would revitalise the role of the critic in genre spaces and I’m certainly finding that it’s having that effect on me. Hence my not only writing a bit more about science fiction but also being a bit more combative in defence of both my ideas and my right to take up space on the internet. Anyway, for those who might have missed it, here is Nina Allan discussing round two of the Shadow Clarke Award and here is the list of books that I will be discussing over the next few weeks.

SmallTreeSun

I am also continuing to enjoy my attempts at photography, if only because it turns my usual decision-making processes on their heads. I remember that in graduate school I would approach fresh topics in a very intuitive fashion, meaning that I would read a little bit of everything and then follow my gut as far as what I felt was the right position. Fifteen-or-so years later and I feel as though my thinking has become a lot more top-down in the sense that I will often worry more about internal consistency than satisfying my gut. Photography inverts this process as while I can and have read books about photographic theory and technique, I find myself unable to approach the creative process in a top-down fashion. The only way I can make photos is by working things through and discovering what feels right and what feels wrong.

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This recent piece by Chris Dillow perfectly captures my thoughts on immigration. Like most people, my thoughts are routinely drawn to the political. Like many others, I find myself consistently disappointed by the intelligence and capacity for moral leadership displayed by contemporary politicians. As a socialist, I was drawn to Corbyn and continue to support him but I was also very disappointed when his ‘populist re-branding’ effectively amounted to nothing more than the standard Labour party cant about respecting the ‘legitimate concerns’ of people who have been tricked into blaming immigrants for the systemic failings of capitalism and the all-pervading hideousness of the British ruling class.

Despite having lived in Britain for most of my life, I am not a British citizen. This means that when I walked into the local village and passed a billboard containing nothing but the word ‘Leave’ I took it personally. As far as I am concerned, there is nothing to discuss when it comes to immigration except for the tendency of centrist politicians to use terms like ‘discussion’ and ‘legitimate concerns’ as a way of dog-whistling anti-immigrant sympathies whilst not actually coming out as a racist. There should be no borders, there should be no walls and fuck anyone who denies the obvious truth that immigrants are both an economic and cultural boon to the societies that receive them.

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This recent piece by Geoff Manaugh riffs on a talk given by Alastair Reynolds about the future of cosmology. According to Reynolds, the continuing expansion of the universe means that there will be a point in the future when the light from other galaxies will simply cease to be detectable from Earth. What this means is that the current moment may very well be part of a very small window in which humanity a) has the scientific method and b) has the physical capacity to collect data about distant galaxies and the birth of the universe.

As someone with a background in philosophy rather than science, this made me wonder which facts about the universe have been rendered inaccessible by the billions of years that separate us from the Big Bang. Had humanity emerged a Billion years earlier, would our vision of the universe be radically different to the one we have today simply by virtue of having better access to the data? Might earlier human civilisations not have needed deep space telescopes and large hadron colliders?

As a reader of science fiction, the image of a human civilisation incapable of working out the existence of other galaxies reminded me of why it is that I still adore certain kinds of hard science fiction. Given that science fiction remains dominated by American institutions, it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that Hard SF is a form of adventure fiction in which competent men save the day by solving engineering puzzles. While a lot of Hard SF does look and feel exactly like that, I have always been drawn to the British tradition of Hard SF that — through Stapledon, Clarke, and Baxter — stresses the absolute indifference of the universe even in the face of humanity’s technological triumph. For me, Hard SF isn’t about engineering puzzles, it’s about the fact that Rama left the solar system without ever bothering to acknowledge the presence of its human explorers. It’s about the moment in Baxter’s Ring where the characters arrive in a solar system that has been explored, conquered, terraformed, and ultimately abandoned by a human race that has long-since disappeared. Given a long enough time-line, nothing matters and that is what I consider to be the message of the British tradition of Hard SF.

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This slightly older piece by Jeremy Allen touches on one of my pet fascinations; the relationship between conspiracy theories and mainstream political thought. In some ways the piece is a bit of a missed opportunity as Allen fails to explore the sunlit glens that border on the path he chooses to walk but the piece is interesting as it recognises the existence of something resembling a political subconscious.

Aside from thinking that they produce objectively bad films that crowd more interesting works out of local cinemas, I object to the politics of the Marvel films. When I say that I object to their politics, I’m not even talking about the might-makes-right assumptions underpinning superhero conflict resolution. I’m talking about the fact that the Marvel films portray government as being so corrupt and useless that they become a problem that only rugged super-powered individualists can solve. Socialism is about taking material resources that are currently under the control of the few and bringing them under the democratic control of the entire population. The Marvel films are right-wing because they argue for the concentration of power and resources in the hands of the (supposedly enlightened but manifestly not) few. Watch enough Marvel films growing up and your first response to political problems will be to argue for smaller government and pray for deliverance from the likes of Richard Branson and Elon Musk. This is what the power of what critical theorists refer to as ideology.

The Fantasy author and Christian apologist wrote the Chronicles of Narnia in the hope of preparing Children’s minds for the concepts of Christianity. The idea was that you’d spend your childhood reading about lions and the fact that women who wear lipstick are all godless whores and then you’d start going to Sunday school and feel perfectly at home with the idea of saviours who die and return to life and the fact that women are inherently sinful creatures who are not to be trusted.

Marvel’s neoliberal militarism and C.S. Lewis’ Christian misogyny operate on children in the same way as the ideas of Alex Jones operate on adults. Allen is right to note that the last uptick in UFO-related conspiracy theories happened under a Democratic presidency and it’s no accident that one of the recurring motifs of the X-files and their ilk was that the American government were spending fortunes on secret research facilities and black helicopters whilst ignoring the poverty and discontent in the American heartland. I mean… how can one respond to the idea that the American government spent $500 on toilet seats other than to demand drastic tax cuts and the death of Big Government? Even if you didn’t believe in the existence of black helicopters, conspiracy theories trained you to view government as something bloated, expensive, and unnecessary.

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This recent piece by Angela Nagle argues that one of the challenges facing contemporary liberalism is its profound hatred of the so-called ‘mob’. Hating the ‘mob’ is nothing new as pretty much every ruling class in history has scrambled to come up with a mythology that justified why the few should rule at the expense of the many.

Like many profoundly stupid ideas, this particular political trope only tends to become obvious in hindsight so it is easy for us to look to the past and snort derisively at the way that 20th Century politicians would justify their hold on power through appeals to a variety of pseudo-scientific concepts ranging from phrenology all the way to the racial psychology of Herrnstein and Murray’s Bell Curve.

Despite being fully cognisant of the harm caused by these ideas in the past, Western society spent the ’90s dutifully internalising the neoliberal myth that our economy has grown so complex that only highly-educated specialist elites are to be trusted with power. Already evident from liberal portrayals of George W. Bush as an ignorant hick, these ideas now appear to be compelling liberals to assume profoundly anti-democratic views towards issues like the Trump Presidency, Scottish independence, and Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

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This recent piece by Adam Roberts marks not only the debut of his new blog but also an invitation to view some of the ideas and insights that are going to be appearing in his forthcoming literary biography of H.G. Wells. EXCITING! EXCITING!

Roberts considers The Time Machine and presents us with a number of interesting departures from conventional thinking about the book. The most obvious departure is that Roberts rejects the idea that Wells’ futuristic society of Morlocks and Eloi is a straight commentary on the 19th Century class system.

Much like Roberts, I tend to reverse the class dynamic and view the Eloi as proletarian while the culture of ruthless competition and self-advancement that currently dominates bourgeois culture has turned middle-class humans into a race of brutal, saw-toothed monsters who literally feast upon the flesh of the poor before returning to their technocratic lairs.

Riffing on Roberts’ analysis here, I think that reversing the class dynamic makes The Time Machine nothing short of prophetic as we appear to be joining the Eloi in a future where automation has rendered vast numbers of humans not just unemployable but effectively surplus to requirements. Indeed, one thing that appears to be driving the interest in a universal basic wage is the need to find a way to support communities comprising families that have been out of work for several generations.

Q: What happens when the proletariat can no longer sell their labour?

A: They find other things to start selling.

Feminist thinkers often use the term ‘bodies’ to refer to the way in which capitalism exploits women by reducing them to little more than a collection of body parts. This analysis chimes with the fact that while middle-class white kids are encouraged to imagine themselves in the roles of entrepreneur or artist, poor black kids are encouraged by the culture to imagine themselves as either athletes or criminals.

Adam’s comments on the Hellenic nature of Wells’ future and the child-like sexuality of the Eloi reminded me of the way that Classical statuary often depicts heroes and gods as having tiny, shrivelled genitals. The reason for this is that large genitals were seen as animalistic and incompatible with the great minds and noble characters that heroes were assumed to have. Classical statuary always depicts the satyr as well-endowed because the satyr is nothing more than a sexually potent savage… an inhuman brute.

The other day, I happened to find myself thinking about Geoff Ryman’s award-winning 2005 novel Air. Set in a fictional country in Central Asia, the novel tells of an illiterate peasant woman who is essentially impregnated by the internet. A metaphorical piece about the challenges of connecting isolated and under-developed areas to a global cultural marketplace, the book ends with the neoliberal vision of Central Asian peasants improving their lot by selling the stuff they make every day to delighted Westerners.

In reality, the West has never acquired a ravening desire for Central Asian fashions, Middle-Eastern rugs, or South American pots and even if it did, it would rather buy them from factories built outside of Chinese cities that did not exist a decade ago. Ryman was right to predict that the internet would allow the global south to make money from the desires of the global north but consider the ever-growing number of pornographic cam hubs out there and you’ll realise that the global poor have learned to sell their bodies by the minute as well as their labour by the hour.

That which occurs ‘over there’ must inevitably happen ‘over here’ and so many teenagers are now learning to monetise their style and physical beauty by turning themselves into YouTube and Instagram stars. Subject the human genome to a few hundred years of this shit and you’ll see us diverge into a ruthless descendants of Wall Street bankers and the beautifully languid and unselfconscious children of people who have spent countless generations pleasuring themselves for the delectation of jaded Westerners.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. March 13, 2017 5:13 pm

    Very good piece.

    Like

  2. March 13, 2017 9:52 pm

    Jonathan, any recommendations on books about photographic theory and technique?

    Like

  3. March 14, 2017 12:05 pm

    Hi Rahul :-)

    For the theory stuff, I found David Bate to be pretty good. He has a book on photography in general and then a book on art photography in particular that seems to touch on most theoretical topics.

    In terms of practice, I think that it’s honestly best to just get out there and take photos as you really do learn a lot more by doing stuff than you would by reading about it in a book. It also helps to find photography books and look at them as working out what you like is quite an important step towards developing a sensibility and it’s having a sensibility that allows you to take better photos as you learn to get a sense of what will look good.

    If you want the basics then any introductory book will tell you how to work your camera on manual and what the various lenses do.

    I have some books on landscape photography and some books on running like weekend photographic projects but in truth, I’ve found myself looking at the pictures and not bothering that much with the text.

    Like

  4. March 15, 2017 9:45 am

    I need more time to read and think about the rest of the items in this post, but it would be wrong of me to delay my praise for the tree & sun photograph. If it doesn’t destroy “the magic of photography” for you, would you be willing to discuss its composition someday?

    Will

    Like

  5. March 15, 2017 3:06 pm

    That’s very kind of you :-) In fairness, this is one of those situations where nature played ball. There’s a large national trust property near us called Sheffield Park gardens and there’s some preserved moorland in front of it. I went there with my camera on a particularly misty day and wandered into the fog. Came out with that picture… taken straight into the sun, the haze and murk were just naturally there. All I did was tighten up the lighting in post-production to give the mist a bit more texture and maybe fine-tune the colour balance. Very simple and lucky.

    Like

  6. CW2046 permalink
    April 10, 2017 12:40 pm

    Well that image of the future is going to haunt me for a bit…

    I agree entirely with your reading of hard sf. I think the scientific materialist ideology of a great swath of the audience for those books finds these readings scary, beyond a surface level bravado that scientists (and they, by virtue of following a snarky meme page) gain. Accepting limitations and narrative indifference probably feels too much like religion, when the reality is it’s an invective to make meaning cooperatively, and be held accountable to your fellows rather than a cruel and indifferent schema of knowledge. I think too much hard sf is also turgid rubbish which doesn’t help delusions of superior intelligence…

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  7. April 14, 2017 8:34 am

    The future of the internet is Chaturbate and Cam4…

    I often think of fantasy as the genre in which the logic of the world turns out to be the logic of stories and where magic is often nothing more than authorial fiat. If you look at contemporary commercial genre fiction you’ll see that the dominance of epic and urban fantasies is being challenged by a return of space opera but it’s space opera that looks and feels like fantasy in that it invariably takes place in universes where people matter in a profoundly cosmological sense.

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  8. April 17, 2017 11:20 am

    I’d go as far as to say it’s the present, even. Considering the huge amount of softcore pornography that’s burned into our faces every day through the likes of Instagram and how the dominant affect online feels like depression, it’s hard not to feel like we’re living in Preciado’s psychopharmocological dystopia already. I think all you’ve done here is suggested a way of expanding it beyond the Global north.

    As for magic and narrative, I keep coming back to M John Harrison, who manages to suffuse his work with magic that works like magic as practicing magicians say it works, and make narratives conform to that logic. Of course, he managed to weave that with sci fi in Light, et al. But I don’t see many other people interested in magic and its siblings as anything other than metalevel D&D spells to avoid consequence.

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