Thursday, 20 May 2010

To lose planetary contact and soar into the void

My previous post quoted Ridley Scott talking about how the Alien prequel will prominently feature terraforming. I don't know to which end yet, but his tantalising comments have ensured that terraforming has weighed heavily on my mind of late. As a fan of Kim Stanley Robinson, I nurture progressive dreams of what we could accomplish on Mars, but there is another side of me that is more pessimistic. I've been watching the new series Voyage to the Planets (not to be confused with the similarly titled American and British programs) and I find myself becoming very enthusiastic about what we are now able to observe, only to then experience the disappointment of how tantalisingly out of our grasp anything more ambitious appears to be. I just can't see enough marshaling of collective will, capital and expertise, in my lifetime at least, for terraforming to become a practical reality. Indeed, I scoffed the other day when I came across an old issue of The Good Weekend supplement of the Sydney Morning Herald circa 1986, which dutifully reported that "Soviet and American scientists agree that Moon colonies should be fully operational by 2010"!! I dare anyone to watch the Mars episode, letalone the upcoming one on Jupiter- to get an idea of how inhospitable these planets are (not to mention inaccessible)- and retain your confidence that you will be a witness or participant in something truly miraculous. I suspect that, like me, you will experience a sense of Lovecraftian "cosmic horror", in the full knowledge that we will [probably] not venture very far.

The conflict arose in me at an early age. I read Lovecraft as a teenager, which afforded me, like everyone who reads him, a glimpse of the horror lying beneath the placid surface of everyday life. When I was 17 though I came across sociology for the first time, and I started to grow more balanced as per the Gramscian ideal of "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will". There was one book that really did it for me: I started to appreciate that power was immanent within society itself (rather than alien beings, mysterious forces or whatever), and this meant that it could be called to account. The Two Faces of Deviance was written by a criminologist, and it critiqued liberal "band aid" type solutions by using the analogy of someone standing on a riverbank who catches a glimpse of what he thinks might be a person drifting by. Every time he dives in to rescue someone, another appears. Realising that he can't continue in this fashion, the man resolves to walk upstream to discover the source of the problem so he can stop it from happening. In other words, he gains an appreciation of structural violence by treating causes, rather than mere symptoms.

I like to picture sociologists and [future] terraformers alike adhering to this operating principle. But the character Anselmo Quemot in Asimov's The Naked Sun, a sociologist by trade, reminded me that a lack of institutional structure can foster anomie and a sense of losing control. This was really brought home to me after playing Half Life. I never fully comprehended the structure driving events. The irony here had to do with the fact that, as Richard J Hand points out in his "Proliferating Horrors: Survival Horror and the Resident Evil Franchise", this genre draws on Lovecraftian archetypes, but returns to the player a sense of control by allowing them to manipulate the environment to their own ends, as they gradually penetrate the heart of the mystery driving the storyline. Ever since, usually once a week, I have a dream reliving the part of Half Live where the player passes through an enormous underground cavern at the base of a research facility. Some kind of gigantic turbine is slowly rotating, with the sound of the machine punctuated by the ripping apart of bodies in its mechanisms. As you look up, you see bones, along with blood and gore, raining down.

What kind of an infernal machine is this? No answer was forthcoming, even once I completed the game. I feel this dream is a foil to the redemptive model of rationality I had earlier taken from The Two Faces Of Deviance. The fact that I still haven't solved the mystery feeds the compulsion to repeat; this serial logic sees me constantly adding new aural and visual elements to the dream. Most recently I passed by the Half Life machine, and heard the echo of power electronics style vocals coming from above, like what you would typically hear in the work of William Bennett and Kevin Tomkins. These were harsh commands, screams or whispers, that I was unable to decipher (hence heightening the sense of mystery).

Please note though, I am not saying that my survivalist fantasies have taken over my life, only that they sometimes furnish the pessimistic component of my Gramscian equilibrium. There's no total commitment to tragedy here. And yes, I have read The Influencing Machine and am fully aware of its significance when mapping what Seltzer describes as "the body machine complex". Hopefully my thinking is reflexive enough to treat it as an imaginative extrapolation, rather than the deus ex machina Viktor Tausk associated with schizophrenia.

This corpse grinding machine, along with my fascination for the Space Jockey mythos, may suggest an intuitive foothold on the meaning of cosmic horror. There's also some great passages in Perdido Street Station that are highly evocative of the mysterious torture associated with infernal machines. By the way, don't bypass the bleak aesthetic of films such as Moon. All well and good. I'm left wondering though: could it be that cosmic horror opens the floodgates to another malady of being? Any sense of bounded selfhood is liable to collapse because cosmic horror implies that the project of autonomy, characteristic of modernity, is revealed to be illusory. In this vein, recall the opening 6 minutes of Saturn 3: a motiveless and unfeeling act, problematising any distinction between an individual and his remote environment...Roger Caillois described a comparable syndrome in terms of the predatory behaviour of certain species, such as a mantis paralyzing its prey. Caillois speaks in terms of mimicry and legendary psychasthenia:

Dark space envelops me on all sides and penetrates me much deeper than light space, the distinction between inside and outside and consequently the sense organs as well, insofar as they are designed for external perception, here play only a totally modest role." This assimilation to space is necessarily accompanied by a decline in the feeling of personality and life. It should be noted in any case that in mimetic species the phenomenon is never carried out except in a single direction: the animal mimics the plant, leaf, flower, or thorn, and dissembles or ceases to perform its functions in relation to others. Life takes a step backwards.

I think of Caillois sometimes too while listening to the music of Darkspace. Unlike most "black metal", their focus is on the cold and bleak description of space. I read their work accordingly as a commentary on how legendary psychasthenia opens up in such lethal spaces after bearing witness to cosmic horror. Which is to say, their music:

"...does what most Depressive/Ambient/Suicidal Black Metal fails to do. It is a preview of death, as Atheism perceives it. No thoughts, no feelings, no emotions, nothing. Gravity withdraws itself and the void opens up".

I'm fascinated as well by the fact that a neoclassical darkwave group, such as Black Tape for a Blue Girl, could morph into a side project called As Lonely As Dave Bowman (referencing the character from 2001: A Space Odyssey). Again, a very cold aesthetic, albeit imbued with a touch of pathos.

That's probably enough for today. You're now free to judge for yourself if the cosmic horror and/or Caillois labels fit everything I've referred to. As for me, I'll wander off to check if a soundtrack takes shape in my mind as I watch the Jupiter episode of Voyage to the Planets tonight. Derridata once offered a description of the following track entitled "Black Star" by the Modified Toy Orchestra that is much in the spirit of what I've tried to convey here:

"it's a couple of guitar chords played from a toy with a guitar sound chip (the Texas Instrument voice embedded in the track repeats "you found a black star") but put through a reverb and it sounds so celestial, so crystalline like an alien transmission signalling through cosmic echoes of background noise pulsing through the void".

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