Saturday, 20 October 2012

How's Your News?

This is really heart-warming stuff. Let's hope it leads to more work being done in mass communication and journalism studies on ableism.

I, along with most of the blogosphere it seems, have by and large migrated to another social media platform. I'd still like though to update this blog occasionally. In any case, please watch the clip for the documentary I've posted here.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Need for Dignity

My father passed away last month so just trying to return to normal now. I'm no "confessing animal", to use Foucault's description, so I won't be waxing poetic by offering bon mots about death as part of "the human condition", or going into great personal detail about what has just happened. However, I am prepared to say that I am now hoping, more than before, for a future where people can be dignified and old.

I've certainly heard enough horror stories where, because of the poor working conditions, aged care facilities are understaffed. So, for the sake of manageability, some respite care homes are drugging the clients who have Alzheimer's and dementia to make them more docile and therefore less demanding. There is obviously a huge unmet need for new forms of cognitive therapy to engage the elderly rather than just leaving them to vegetate and sit out the clock. "God's waiting room" was one apt description that came to mind when visiting these places--they are seriously depressing.

But I regard any therapeutic "solutions" as merely a way station to something more ambitious. Yes, governments depend on us dying so they don't have to pay for our upkeep if we aren't self-funded retirees, but I hope it will be possible to rethink and ultimately radically restructure the work-life cycle to redress the lack of value invested in older citizens. Part of the irony, of course, about governments panicking about declining birth rates is that little consideration to date has been given to how greater investment in negligible senescence research could mean that children need no longer be solely relied on as the future reserve army of labor: I am certain that more older adults would prefer to remain productive in some capacity, which would counterbalance the need to fund respite care. Just think of the reduced costs of early education as a "knock on" effect of more transitions in the life cycle of the existing populace, rather than having to "start from scratch" with each new generation of children. I am not advocating a zero-sum game though because I simply believe that more people, especially women, would genuinely benefit if they had greater freedom to postpone (or avoid them altogether, if preferred) caregiver duties, or to decide whether children were their best option for leaving a "future legacy," or for finding someone to look after their welfare when they grow old.

 Ultimately then, I hope there can be more than just a losing hand for those who devolve into the "second childhood" where they become totally dependent and can't even shower, go to the toilet, or dress themselves; let alone retain their identities because of memory loss. I am sure there would be some devotees of psychoanalysis who would diagnosis my basic problem as being a lack of a capacity to "mourn" and therefore accept the inevitability of decline. I remember the sociologist and analyst Ian Craib eloquently describing how he tried to teach his clients this lesson, and yet Craib passed away in his early fifties from cancer. Perhaps there is some "cold comfort" in accepting your lot in life, but by the same token, surely nobody wants to feel cheated of all the productive years (for some this would mean paid employment or volunteer work) that might, and should, have lain ahead.

Just after my father's passing, I caught wind of a talk by sociologist Steve Fuller about ageing. I've been too busy to listen to it yet, but its timely appearance was a reminder to me of why I have to keep monitoring and, where possible, commenting on, developments with serious future implications. I find Fuller's sociology a more useful tool than Craib's. As Fuller reminds us, death is not the exclusive preserve of the old, "the young can get into it too." He's not trying to be flippant here either. I have it on my iPod so will try to listen to it later today as I work my way through things.

And yet, my father did enjoy this Death In June song:

Featured on :
- But what ends when the symbols shatter
- Disc-riminate
- Heilige!
- Live in Italy
- Something is coming

Black angel, black angel
As you grow up
I want you to drink
From the plenty cup
My little black angel
My little black angel as years roll by
I want you to fly with wings held high
I want you to live by the justice code
I want you to burn down freedom's road
My little black angel
Oh lie away, oh lie away asleeping
Lie away safe in my arms
Your father, your future protects you
And locks you safe from all harm
Little black angel I feel so glad
You'll never have things I never had
When out of men's hearts all hate has gone
It's better to die than forever live on
My little black angel...

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Here is where bioethics has something unique to offer

What other academic field requires you to issue strident moral challenges to the very people who pay your salary and sit on your tenure committee? If you are feeling a little too comfortable with success, it doesn’t usually take much work to dig up some sort of ethical problem to expose. Conflict of interest, research scandals, malpractice lawsuits in waiting -- any of these will do. Go to a dean or a hospital administrator, kick up a fuss with your Institutional Review Board, or if you’re really feeling lucky, go straight to the media. Bang, you’re dead! Professional suicide! This is the beauty part. In bioethics, there is always somebody for you to alienate. Take a step in one direction and you piss off the activists. Take a step back and you anger the doctors. Step to the right and the dean wants your head. Step to the left and the media will crucify you. Pretty soon you’ll find yourself hopping around like a hyperactive five-year-old who has forgotten his Ritalin. One day you will come into work and find the locks changed on your office door. When that happens, sit back, have a cigar, and start looking through the want ads. Congratulate yourself on a job well done.

Thieves of Virtue: When Bioethics Stole Medicine

In a promotional article in the Huffington Post for the publication of Thieves of Virtue: When Bioethics Stole Medicine, Tom Koch, a Canadian gerontologist and bioethicist,  writes:  

"The foundation myth of bioethics, the 'demi-discipline's' self-professed raison d'etre is at best inadequate if not demonstrably false. Its grounding lies not, as bioethicists insist, in a robust ethic of care necessitated by new science and a failed Hippocratic sense of duty and care. Instead its origins and purpose demonstrably rest upon its service to the neoliberal, postmodernist economics that made health a commodity rather than a service."

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Dark Pools and High-Frequency Drones

It will be very interesting to see if Philip Mirowski, author of Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science, decides to update his thesis in light of Scott Patterson's new book, Dark Pools: High-Speed Traders, A.I. Bandits, and the Threat to the Global Financial System. Or perhaps Mirowski might just write a review instead. I haven't read the book yet myself, so I can't comment on whether Patterson's thesis itself presupposes technological determinism, but journalists are certainly quick to resort to it when characterising Patterson's arguments. The Sydney Morning Herald's Paul Sheehan, for example, argues that "regulators are always caught in the wake of technological change. This wake has grown into a froth as the computer age keeps accelerating its own evolution (emphasis mine)".

And there's a viscosity in the imagery quoted from the book, somewhat reminiscent of The Terminator, which speaks in terms of ''a worldwide matrix of dazzlingly complex algorithms, interlinked computer hubs the size of football fields, and high-octane trading robots guided by the latest advances in artificial intelligence''.

For Sheehan, the upshot of all this is clear:

"At the end of World War II, the average holding period for a stock was four years. By 2000, it was eight months. By 2008, it was two months. By last year, it was 22 seconds. By now it will be as long as it takes to read these first two paragraphs...This evolution includes the ''dark pools'' that gave Patterson the title of his book. They are giant pools of liquidity which financial institutions use to trade with each other, outside the sharemarkets, to avoid the preying Bots that seek to exploit any large trade. Dark pools are also an attempt to create stability. As Patterson writes: ''Insiders were slowly realising that the push-button, turbo-trading market in which algos battled algos … at speeds measured in billionths of a second had a fatal flaw … a vicious self-reinforcing feedback loop … Because speed traders had pushed aside more traditional long-term market makers … algos could trigger their own form of self-reinforcing mayhem.''

But if such systems are portrayed as autonomous, then any attempt to regulate them risks appearing a hopelessly dated and defeatist humanist gesture. This is where Patterson's work could reinforce the posthumanist presuppositions of Luhmann's theory and dovetail with Knorr-Cetinna's thesis of the "post-social" environment inhabited by traders. So this book is a reminder of why we have to make sure our social theory does not become too complicit with its object of analysis, without sacrificing any of the complexity needed to adequately address emergent social phenomena. I can't see that this need be too difficult though, especially when Patterson states that his thesis is postmodern:

''With electronic trading, a placeless, faceless, postmodern cyber-market in which computers communicated at warp speed, that physical sense of the market's flow had vanished. The market gained new eyes - electronic eyes …"

Social theory and sociology have been dealing with postmodernists now for more than twenty years, and have proven, contra Baudrillard, that reports of the "death of the social" have been greatly exaggerated. So I feel confident that a new generation will be able to rise to this latest challenge as well.

One final thing, be sure to watch the clip I've posted here till the end, because it concludes with some interesting speculations about the future applications of drone technology. Drones legally become available for commercial use in the United States in 2015.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

My thanks to Steve Fuller...

...for the following kind words:

What is lacking in the first three sites is more than adequately compensated for by yet another Australian website„ named for the planet where most of the Ridley Scott film, ‘Alien’ takes place. This is the only website that I would recommend turning into a book or perhaps even multi-media package. It is an amazing source for commentary and clips on the nexus where critical social theory and trans-/post-humanism meet. The steady stream of current news items, science fiction references and other elements of popular culture – laced together with consistently incisive observations – is a marvel to behold. It is one website that always aims to keep its readers at the edge of their seats. 

Made me feel a bit guilty though for not maintaining a "steady stream of current news items" etc this year because of other commitments. I still greatly appreciate the sentiments, of course. Trying to get something else (a publication) in the works this month, and if it starts to come off,  hope you won't mind Steve if I need to run it by you. Still early days, so not sure yet.

Speaking of dystopias...

 ...having just discussed Peter Thiel, it's disturbing how a feminist science fiction author could advocate something almost as frightening. I've just read an incisive piece that attributes the blindspots in Sheri S Tepper's work to second-wave feminism,  "a movement that was largely defined by and for middle-class white women and notoriously failed to deal with the complex intersections of gender, race, class, and sexuality that women outside that narrow bracket negotiate daily".

In an interview back in  2008, Tepper announced her faith in eugenics as a means of dealing with persons:

"who look human but who are uncontrollable or who habitually hurt other people will no longer be defined as human,” she said in a 2008 interview with Strange Horizons .
Walled cities will be built in the wastelands and all nonhuman persons will be sterilized and sent to live there, together, raising their own food. There will be no traffic in, no traffic out, except for studies that may be done which might lead to a ‘cure.’ There will be no chat about this sequestration being ‘inhumane,’ because the persons so confined are not human by definition.
(Whether she is unaware that forced sterilization has been used routinely against low-income women of color well into the 1970s, or whether she simply doesn’t care, isn’t clear.) Tepper’s ideal society is a terrifying dystopia in and of itself, and once you know that about her, it’s easy to see those politics reflected in everything she writes".

Will Thiel wait for us in the future as Dr Eldon Tyrell?

Dr. Eldon Tyrell: a corporate figure in Blade Runner, presented almost as a a kind of deity who has the power of creating life

I think probably not because Thiel isn't really a visionary. He instead seems to spend most of his time playing in other people's sandboxes. Where there's public debate, he's simply a gadfly. The Tyrrell character at least had bioengineering credentials which gave his company a monopoly in the replicant industry, whereas here's Thiel again merely jumping on the bandwagon, as befitting sui generis futurism, by investing in 3D printed meat; the man who publicly decries democracy for humans apparently wants to be remembered as helping to spare animals from becoming our food. Thiel is notorious for wildly throwing money around at any technology he thinks will stick, which to him means capable of facilitating libertarian autonomy by eluding government regulation (and therefore unsubsidised by governments, so if individual consumers can't afford them, in Thiel's world you won't get to reap any of their benefits). His type is probably a dime a dozen on the futures market; the only difference is Thiel gets brand name recognition and therefore publicly because of his association with PayPal. He's clearly not original enough to patent any ideas worth investing in, and this will mean he will have a hell of a lot of ground to make up before he could seriously compete with established players, not least Monsanto, who already have a huge vested interest in biotech and the meat industry.

I have no doubt though that, in principle, Thiel's mindset would amount to a licence to create a future as dystopian as anything in Blade Runner (click on the link underneath his picture in this post for a further taste of what I mean). This goes all the way to Thiel's narcissistic plan to clone himself: here I am reminded of the scene written for Blade Runner that was never filmed. Batty appears to have killed Tyrell, but it later emerges that another section of the pyramidal (signifying plutocracy) corporate headquarters houses a shark swimming around in an enormous tank. Tyrell's brain, apparently for his personal protection and befitting the lack of sleep required for calibration to the rhythms of the market***, had been transplanted into the shark. Simply an incredible image of the parallels between the savage predators of the ocean and the predators of the corporate world. My speculations in this post (partly with tongue firmly planted in cheek) therefore suggest that although Thiel may be only low-hanging fruit, figuratively speaking, when compared to Tyrell in terms of an overall future social impact, he might at least achieve a comparable level of sentient immortality once he decides to use technologies to blur the species boundaries.

I should also point out that Thiel obviously doesn't appreciate how capitalism is actually incompatible with meritocracy. He blames political correctness (see link under Thiel's pic in this post) for fueling the education bubble, claiming that it prevents the articulation of "certain truths about the inequality of abilities". But consider how the poor would be less likely  to tolerate Thiel's ilk if they had to accept the (fallacious) idea that wealth is commensurate with the amount of effort and ability invested. Zizek offers a pithy assessment of the  proposal that:

a viable and orderly social democracy could be based on a deal whereby we give total power and status to a super rich knowledge elite in exchange for all citizens – regardless of merit or effort – being guaranteed a basic income. He dismissed this, in part because he said it took no account of envy. Zizek quoted Frederich Von Hayek who argued – against advocates of social justice – that the poor find it easier to accept the wealthy if they think their fortune is unmerited. For the masses to accept that those at the top deserve their success means the majority have to accept not only that they are poorer but they are less virtuous.

*** which would make sense (LOL!) as an alternative to cocaine, which has long been the drug of choice on Wall Street

(CREDIT TO my fellow blogger Derridata for first offering a comparison of Tyrell and Thiel, and for discussing meritocracy with me)

A Futuristic Short Film HD: by Sight Systems

A short futuristic film by Eran May-raz and Daniel Lazo.
This is their graduation project from Bezaleal academy of arts.

They have been billed as the future of the way that we will interact with computers.
But a new science fiction film suggests that augmented reality glasses actually have a far darker side - and might allow us to control one another.
‘Sight’ shows how virtual reality can take over from normal life to the extent that we can’t exist without it.

Read more:

Please share if you enjoyed it!
Daniel Lazo:
Eran May-raz:
Hanan Revivo:
Boaz Bachrach:
Ori Golad
Deborah Aroshas

The Superior Human?

"The idea that humans are superior to all other life forms is
not rare. It is one of the most fundamental reasons for
humanity’s careless destruction of our environment, animal
cruelty, war, and other immense problems. The Superior
Human? is the first documentary to systematically
challenge this pompous, self-destructive ideology. The
production team and speakers include world-leading
academics in their respective fields.

They say that necessity sparks invention and that progress
is triggered by need, so why would a species that believes
it is the son of God, the goal of evolution and in domination
of everything on the planet ever need to change? Writer
and director Samuel McAnallen invites viewers to test the
durability of the pillars which hold our status above all
other life forms. Prepare to not only have your ego tested,
but to be shocked by what has passed as science by
governments and leading academic institutions up until
now. For example, did you know that dogs cannot feel

The film starts by cynically poking at a list of 18 commonly
referenced reasons for our supposed superiority. For
those who think our superiority is due to a perfect balance
of many reasons, this view is examined as well. Finally, it
asks if all these reasons are unfairly subjective and shows
viewers just how successful the human species is in terms
of survival. Producer, Dr Jenia Meng, hopes that the film will
stimulate intelligent debate on the topic of human

Written and Directed by: Samuel McAnallen

Produced by: Dr Jenia Meng

Research Advisor: Dr Jenia Meng

Dr Bernard Rollin
Gary Yourofsky
Dr Richard Ryder
Dr Steven Best
Narrated by Dr Nick Gylaw

Country: Australia, USA

Studio: Ultraventus

Distributed by: Ultraventus

Running time: 73 minutes

Release date: March 30, 2012 (perimiere online)

    The Superior Human? is dedicated to 2012 Earth April (EA) which includes Earth Day and World Lab Animal Day.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

The Replicator Economy and Its Discontents

Still waiting for more sceptics to weigh in on this issue. I have fond memories of someone I used to know walking out of Terminator 2: Judgement Day, aghast at the prospect that the kind of morphing SFX in that film would become so widely available and easy to use that the entire basis of the criminal justice system would eventually be undermined--Just imagine, "I was morphed Your Honor!!!", screams yet another framed defendant, as he or she is led from the dock. Determined to maintain the rage, the fellow fired off an angry letter to TIME magazine, which although unpublished, is probably still glued to the wall of the TIME staffroom, where it would continue to provoke hilarity among the journalists.

Notwithstanding PhotoShop, I think what makes the predictions about 3-D printing more credible is that the technology is not prohibitively expensive and has been producing results. That assault rifle example is a bit of a game changer, so we seem to be talking here about something more than the sui generis reportage of futurists. The mechanisms of production and distribution are changing rapidly, and the emerging questions have to do with what effect this will have on markets, which are based on scarcity. For example, will it provide a good incentive for criminal syndicates, a category in which some would include Big Pharma, to prosecute a fierce campaign against any democratisation of such technologies? Furthermore, rather than take it for granted that hard currency will completely disappear on technologically determinist premises, we need to attend to the paradoxes it will continue to raise as a symbol, a social relation, and an object (not least in relation to the "imagined communities" that demarcate national boundaries, as signified by currencies). In terms of theory, I imagine this will involve increasing conflict between social theorists such as Emily Gilbert and the more philosophically hardwired (and arguably determinist)  cultural studies perspective of authors such as Rotman (for the latter, see Signifying Nothing: The Semiotics of Zero--i.e a capitalism which, in Rotman's words, was distinguished 'not by the buying and selling of goods, labour and services, but of money itself' ).

I didn't mind Rennie's piece on the so-called replicator economy, because although it veers dangerously close to technological determinism by arguing that "The precise limitations of replicator technology will determine where scarcity and foundations for value will remain", he also concedes "Perhaps the most important limitation on the replicator economy may be competition from good old mass production".

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Print out working assault weapons from home!

Gee, and I thought it was just going to be the possibilities for synthetic biology when people could print out their own body parts etc at home that could revolutionize our lives....

An amateur gunsmith, operating under the handle of "HaveBlue" (incidentally, "Have Blue" is the codename that was used for the prototype stealth fighter that became the Lockheed F-117), announced recently in online forums that he had successfully printed a serviceable .22 caliber pistol.

Despite predictions of disaster, the pistol worked. It successfully fired 200 rounds in testing.

HaveBlue then decided to push the limits of what was possible and print an AR-15 rifle. To do this, he downloaded plans for an AR-15 in the Solidworks file format from a site called After some small modifications to the design, he fed about $30 of ABS plastic feedstock into his late-model Stratasys printer. The result was one part needed to create a functional AR-15 rifle (the lower receiver), which was then attached to a real upper gun part. Early testing shows that the completed rifle works, although it still has some minor feed and extraction problems to be worked out.

HaveBlue has also been testing the "marketplace" for 3D printing weapons. To do this he asked Thingiverse, the 3-D design sharing site run by Makerbot Industries, whether it was permissible to post weapons designs or not. According to HaveBlue, Makerbot's senior leadership decided to not disallow, but to discourage, the posting of weapons designs. Haveblue then posted a design for an AR-15 part on Thingiverse, but in the intensive legal discussion that followed Haveblue's posting, Thingiverse decided to ban weapons designs outright. However, since Haveblue's design is still on the site, it's unclear whether Thingiverse is enforcing a ban or not.

While there are still some details to sort out, it's pretty clear that making weapons at home using 3D printers from commonly available materials is going to become much more commonplace in the near future. In fact, as 3D printing technology matures, materials feedstock improves, and designs for weapons proliferate, we might soon see the day when nearly everyone will be able to print the weapons of their choice in the numbers they desire, all within the privacy of their own homes.

The Body Farm

RTI is one of a growing industry of companies that make profits by turning mortal remains into everything from dental implants to bladder slings to wrinkle cures. The industry has flourished even as its practices have roused concerns about how tissues are obtained and how well grieving families and transplant patients are informed about the realities and risks of the business.

''I was in shock'' ... Kateryna Rahulina says she did not give permission for the body of her mother Olha to be harvested.

In the US alone, the biggest market and the biggest supplier, an estimated two million products derived from human tissue are sold each year, a figure that has doubled over the past decade.
It is an industry that promotes treatments and products that literally allow the blind to see (through cornea transplants) and the lame to walk (by recycling tendons and ligaments for use in knee repairs). It's also an industry fuelled by powerful appetites for bottom-line profits and fresh human bodies.
In the Ukraine, for example, the security service believes that bodies passing through a morgue in the Nikolaev district, the gritty shipbuilding region located near the Black Sea, may have been feeding the trade, leaving behind what investigators described as potentially dozens of “human sock puppets” — corpses stripped of their reusable parts.

Read more:

Monday, 30 April 2012

Return to normal service soon

I've just be relying on my phone's 3G for Internet connectivity so blogging has slowed down dramatically of late. I sense greatness in derridata's last two posts but haven't been able to take them in properly yet.

I go away for a little while and then return only to find a brand new blogging interface I'll have to get used to next. OK two minutes left on this public terminal so better go now and hope to have my home connection up and running later this week (and hopefully find some stuff inspiring enough to blog about too...)

Saturday, 24 March 2012

My reply to Jason Colavito

I tried to post my response to Jason, who wrote a lengthy reply to my "Prometheus: The Sublime Chaogony of Xenoarchaeology", but I couldn't get it to load on his website, so I figured I had no choice but to put it here instead.

OK I'm back to post my response. Even if you disagree with me, I hope this will at least give a clearer idea of where I'm coming from. Apologies if this sounds a little brusque at times, but I had a few interruptions:

You suggest that Beal, and by extension, myself, have somehow relocated Lovecraft's aliens in the "spirit realm". Frankly, I'm baffled by this interpretation. I can see no evidence for this in Beal's work or in my post. Beal even goes so far as to write that "Lovecraft's own use of mythology, however, could not be further from...nostalgic religious longing" (p191). Regardless, you insist on taking issue with Beal's claim that Lovecraft's aliens are "reminiscent" of theological language about the "paradoxical immanence and transcendence of God", arguing instead that Lovecraft's intentions were to "mirror" for the sake of parody. I disagree as I think this is attaching too much weight to what Beal means by "reminiscent." Beal's purpose is not to use Lovecraft to shore up a Biblical exegesis in accord with strict doctrine. Speaking more in terms of an analogy or an elective affinity in this instance, it seems clear to me instead that all he means to evoke by his description is a sense of how the entities in question are "intimately near and yet wholly other". There's no conflation of God and aliens. There is nothing here that presupposes a shared spirit realm, with the emphasis falling instead on the paradoxically, to use Lovecraft's term, "undimensioned". Beal notes how Lovecraft DOES NOT have a theology (as per the "theologian without a theology" quote), so it can be taken as read that Lovecraft's aliens are, in Beal's eyes-- to quote your Nietzschean expression (which I seem to recall Lovecraft applied to the Great Old Ones)-- "beyond good and evil". This point is reinforced with reference to Derleth's  attempt to turn the Mythos into "cathedral windows", which Beal dutifully notes has been criticised by Lovecraftians for its simplistic portrayal of a struggle between good and evil (p187). It is noteworthy that Beal makes no attempt whatsoever to defend Derleth from these charges.

I don't know if other more specific theological terms, such as panentheism for example, could be compared and contrasted with what Lovecraft may have meant by "undimensioned", especially once "spirit" is not even really at issue in Beal's analogy. This is probably also the reason why Beal doesn't develop his theory as an apophatic theology and cataphasis by arguing, say, that Lovecraft favored various rhetorical devices, such as occultatio, because the Mythos somehow "covertly" expressed a negative theology. Thus I decided instead to base my evaluation of Beal's work solely on what he explicitly set out to achieve. For me it follows that, while your comments about "The Dunwich Horror" are perhaps of some general interest to Lovecraftians, I can't see how they're really applicable to Beal at all, not least because he does not even refer to Christ in his Lovecraft chapter (and the same is true of the book as a whole, with the exception of one page). He's clearly more interested in the Hebrew Bible (there's also no mention of the Jewish messianism in the book). It's a moot point then whether Lovecraft's "parody" of Christ lends much "weight" to his fiction at Beal's expense, in the manner which you suggest.

It's surely no accident either that Beal decided to call his book "Religion and Its Monsters", as opposed to say, "Biblical Monsters". I'm sorry, but I have to disagree with your point that Beal is claiming that Lovecraft's aliens are "essentially biblical". You suggest that Beal,  "overestimates the biblical echoes in the Cthulhu Mythos at the expense of the pagan religions that were more explicitly the monsters’ model. (Not to mention that the Bible’s monsters were themselves reworking of earlier Mesopotamian and Levantine myths, perhaps including Tiamat.)". The fact of the matter though is that Beal contextualizes his discussion by devoting the entire first chapter of his book to the gods of "the ancient Near East", including the Tiamat  you mention, writing, "Behind and around the religious traditions of the Hebrew a rich and varied world of gods, monsters and monster gods". He then develops this line of argument by using as his example the stories about Baal and Anat in Ugaritic narrative that are closely related to the Hebrew Bible (p19). Beal even takes care to include the Hebrew terms, so one can draw the obvious inference that there was a considerable convergence and differentiation of the Israelite religion vis-à-vis its Caanite heritage. True to form, in his Lovecraft chapter, Beal warms to this "reworking" theme, describing how Lovecraft stitched together [a mythology]...from mutually incompatible religious discourses and ritual practices...jamming together theological and mythological categories" and then "from Sumerian to Egyptian to Puritan to Vodou" (p191).  I honestly can't see any inconsistency or "overestimation" here or elsewhere of the biblical influence on Beal's part.

You produce some compelling evidence that complicates how we should read the role that anthropology has played in colonialism (we both understand archaeology as falling under the umbrella term of "anthropology"). But I think that when we examine the discipline's "balance sheet", something can still be said for my argument. I have to concur with Maximilian Forte:

"You’re right, it would be good to hear from other evil colonizers beside myself, the reason for that being that there would be an almost countless number of diverse cases and many different versions of the argument, and disputes. One generalization I would be confident in making is that in the overwhelming majority of cases, these different people did not seek out any foreign anthropologist to “share” their worldviews, that many of them are capable of doing so on their own, and that a few would rather keep their cultural knowledge to themselves.
In other words, I don’t think we are indispensable where sharing worldviews is concerned, nor do I think we are wanted, and very little thanks is owing to us."

Moving along, another sticking point for you is that I appear to have mistakenly emphasized the role of "primitive faiths" in Lovecraft's fiction. You are interested to know how modern peoples relate to "primitive religion", "is it to their texts, their rituals, their myths, or their actions?" It's a fair question, and I'll attempt to to answer it in terms of rituals (which here necessarily connote actions). Firstly, I should note that one of the underlying fears expressed in Lovecraft's work is that humanity is in constant danger of reverting to a state of "primitive half-ape savagery in their daily life and ritual observances". This is a quote from The Horror of Red Hook, but it is representative enough for Joshi in his study "H.P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West," to feature in the context of a discussion of the "curious mixture of an advanced technology and a reversion to primitivism" that pervades Lovecraft's work. Lovecraft was pretty explicit about this point: "We must recognise the essential underlying savagery in the animal called man...We must realise that man's nature will remain the same so long as he remains man; that civilisation is but a slight coverlet beneath which the dominant beast sleeps lightly and ever ready to awake." This is a fascinating statement because it demonstrates Lovecraft's belief in the essentially primordial unchanging nature of humanity as something continually reinscribed in ritualistic forms.

  Notwithstanding the progress of the West, for Lovecraft the danger is that the actions of humans will in effect merely rework the "ritual observances" of "primitive half-ape savagery", be it through science or any other modern means. Social darwinist that he was, Lovecraft believed that, as you point out, "racially suspect groups" were particularly susceptible to knowledge of the Cthulthu cult, although not exclusively so. The use of advanced mathematics etc, however, need not imply that the rituals are no longer primitive in any sense, but rather that they paradoxically typify a form of "future primitivism". To illustrate what I mean, I point to the intriguing example of the Chaos magicians who borrow so much from Lovecraft. They have seized on this seemingly paradoxical term to evoke the shamanism more often characterized in terms of "primitive" ritual observances:

"As we find with Lovecraft's fictional cults and grimoires, chaos magicians refuse the hierarchical, symbolic and monotheist biases of traditional esotericism. Like most Chaos magicians, the British occultist Peter Carroll gravitates towards the Black, not because he desires a simple Satanic inversion of Christianity but because he seeks the amoral and shamanic core of magical experience—a core that Lovecraft conjures up with his orgies of drums, guttural chants, and screeching horns. At the same time, Chaos mages like Carroll also plumb the weird science of quantum physics, complexity theory and electronic Prometheanism. Some darkside magicians become consumed by the atavistic forces they unleash or addicted to the dark costume of the Satanic anti-hero. But the most sophisticated adopt a balanced mode of gnostic existentialism that calls all constructs into question while refusing the cold comforts of skeptical reason or suicidal nihilism, a pragmatic and empirical shamanism that resonates as much with Lovecraft's hard-headed materialism as with his horrors."

I won't respond to what you've written about At the Mountains of Madness because I can't readily fit it into my blog post or Beal's work which touches more on the ritualistic aspects etc. And besides, I've probably written too much already as it is. I'll close by saying that I was intrigued by your critique of the alleged shortcomings in how Beal portrays Lovecraft's aliens as "chaos monsters". I'm not fully on board though with how you argue that the Bible describes "chaos" only in an absolute sense, especially when Beal talks about how chaos is sometimes portrayed in the Bible as a form of creation, and therefore a new form of order. Beal even relates his discussion (p15) to the prospective heat death of the universe. Lovecraft,"the Copernicus of horror", seemed to think it was merciful that some things remain unknown, so I can only assume he wouldn't have shared Beal's cautious optimism!

Speaking of creation, I don't want to depart on a sour note by giving the impression that I am not a fan of Lovecraft, or the works he's obviously inspired, such as Alien and Prometheus. I love each and every one of them. Yes, I find his racism very disturbing, but I think the philosopher Ben Noys gave all Lovecraftians a great way of understanding how Lovecraft's writings are still paradoxically irreducible to such shortcomings, even though we should remind ourselves of them, as I attempted to do in my post:

 'In the formation of “reactionary novelties” (Badiou) Lovecraft can be aligned with those forms of “High Modernism,” such as T. S. Eliot’s, that constituted themselves, in Peter Nicholls words, as “an attack on modernity” (251). The difficulty, in terms of Badiou’s evental tracings, is how Lovecraft’s “novelty” is something artistically “new” while at the same time “politically” reactionary (and reactionary against other artistic innovations); it suggests the intersection or imbrication of events: in this case art, science, politics.

His reaction against these currents of the new produces a “reactionary novelty,” but actually also a true novelty of disruption that exceeds its primary evental site – Gothic fiction; this may be why that it only outside of the Gothic that we find Lovecraft’s true disciples: William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard, and Michel Houellebecq, artists like H. R. Giger and John Coulthart, and muscians like The Fall and Patti Smith. The Lovecraft event therefore problematises Badiou’s formulation of the artistic event by being a reactionary event that produces something new'.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

"We don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future..."

Just thought I'd share this inspiring quote from radical historian Howard Zinn (R.I.P):

“TO BE HOPEFUL in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. 

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. 

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” 

Prometheus: the Sublime Chaogony of Xenoarchaeology?

Well, I suppose I might be expected to pass comment on the new trailer for Prometheus (which I watched a couple of days ago but have been slow to respond to). It's noteworthy how much it appears to be foregrounding xenoarchaeological themes through the discovery of pictographs and so forth.

This in turn raises a big question for me: as a science fiction film, does this mean it will break with the discourses of primitivism that have been traditionally applied to ancient religious cultures? Whereas the "official" imperial discourse has attempted to define modernity as a western project in contrast to its alleged primitive "Other", the "poetic primitivism" associated with, for example, the College  de Sociologie, drew on anthropological studies of non-western myths and "primitive" religious practices, to invoke a kind of contretemps (i.e. counter-time) to contrast with Occidental instrumental rationality.

Notwithstanding these superficial differences, the fact remains that each of these discourses were a byproduct of colonialism: remember anthropologists could only write their ethnographies by arriving on the scene after the territories in question had been conquered. I can start to move this discussion a little closer to Prometheus then by referring to the work of H.P. Lovecraft. As is well known by all hardcore Alien fans, screenwriter Dan O'Bannon explicitly drew on Lovecraftian themes. I would argue then that Lovecraft's fiction is "weird" by virtue of its  melding of these twinned discourses of primitivism into what can be described as a kind of "monstrous sublime". My hunch is confirmed by any number of studies of Lovecraft that go to considerable pains to detail his aesthetic in Kantian terms of "transcendental monstrosity". But such authors for the most part fail to provide a genealogy that can critically contextualise either Lovecraft's or their own reading strategy.  This lack of reflexivity makes them complicit with the object in question, which although irreducible to, is by the same token inseparable from, the historical emergence of the sublime as a category of aesthetic judgement that developed as an alternative to beauty in European descriptions of Indian religious iconography from the middle of the eighteenth century onward. I have been drawing on Timothy K Beal's Religion and its Monsters here, which is itself heavily indebted to Partha Mitter's study entitled Much maligned monsters: a history of European reactions to Indian art.

As Beal ruefully notes, by way of Edward J Ingebretson's Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King, the irony regarding Lovecraft is that the religion denied so forcefully by his materialism returns with equal force in his fiction, in effect making Lovecraft a "theologian without a theology". His alien races are recognisably "chaos monsters" in biblical terminology--and reminiscent of the paradoxical immanence and transcendence of God--or as Lovecraft put it, "Not in the spaces we know, but between them. They walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen..." However, I hasten to add, Beal is careful to qualify this point with reference to a wide range of religious traditions, so that the reader can understand how chaogony is not exclusively characteristic of  Christianity.

Suffice to say, there is also plenty of material in Beal that could be used to challenge the author who is known as the world's leading authority on Lovecraft, namely, S.T. Joshi. I usually find reading Joshi  a frustrating experience as he is quick to make assertions about Lovecraft's materialism as somehow "disproving" Christianity. Another sticking point for me is that I've never read anything by Joshi on colonialism and non-western chaogony. If indeed he has never engaged with this topic, I suspect it would have to do with the fact that Joshi is so obsessed by writing/editing books on authors who proudly proclaimed their atheism. Mr Joshi himself is of Indian descent, but it would of course be unreasonable (and even bordering on racism) to suggest that this would necessarily make him receptive to Partha Mitter's work. Thus my only point here is that it would be interesting to have those two sitting on the same conference panel and hearing whether they would have any points of agreement about the origins and effects of the discourse of primitivism--especially in relation to Lovecraft's work. I imagine a heated discussion would quickly follow.

To sum up, if I was writing a detailed critical study of xenoarchaeology, you can take it as read that I would be using Beal et al to determine the extent to which the genre does or does not recapitulate the tropes of primitivism. Regarding Prometheus more specifically, of particular interest for me will be seeing if and how the film's "sense of wonder"--which is a defining characteristic of the sci fi genre--bears comparison with the Kantian sublime, in the context of its story of encounters with previously unknown races and possibly also their icons (i.e., art with a religious function). I obviously can't say too much though about Prometheus and primitivism on the basis of a trailer. But there's already plenty of other fascinating material out there, especially representations of "hyperspace as hell". Think the invisible entities that attack the ships in Larry Niven's Ringworld series, Event Horizon (which Warhammer fans describe as "a prequel"), and so forth. In an earlier post on Prometheus I cryptically  alluded to my ideal meld of horror and science fiction, and if you acquaint yourself with what I've mentioned here, you'll soon see where I'm coming from.

After all that, for those who still haven't seen this viral video, here is the new trailer for the film in question.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

The 1%
We Know What We Will Do To You This Summer

The Occupy Wall Street movement no longer occupies Wall Street, but the issue of class conflict has captured a growing share of the national consciousness. A new Pew Research Center survey of 2,048 adults finds that about two-thirds of the public (66%) believes there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between the rich and the poor—an increase of 19 percentage points since 2009.

Not only have perceptions of class conflict grown more prevalent; so, too, has the belief that these disputes are intense. According to the new survey, three-in-ten Americans (30%) say there are “very strong conflicts” between poor people and rich people. That is double the proportion that offered a similar view in July 2009 and the largest share expressing this opinion since the question was first asked in 1987.

As a result, in the public’s evaluations of divisions within American society, conflicts between rich and poor now rank ahead of three other potential sources of group tension—between immigrants and the native born; between blacks and whites; and between young and old. Back in 2009, more survey respondents said there were strong conflicts between immigrants and the native born than said the same about the rich and the poor.

"Rising Share of Americans See Conflict Between Rich and Poor
by Rich Morin

With his re-election campaign in full swing, President Obama faces a series of challenges in the upcoming year: namely a 9.1% unemployment rate and an electorate pessimistic about the country’s current track. Many Americans—with outspoken Tea Party activists at the fore—are calling for smaller government and a decrease in federally backed services. Yet most of the Americans hostile to these programs have at some point relied on them and even valued them. Why? Suzanne Mettler argues that it’s largely because most Americans have no idea that they’re receiving these services. They know they pay taxes, but they don’t realize that they’re also benefiting every single day: from the hidden subsidies, little-known programs, and substantial tax breaks that make up the “submerged state.”

In recent decades, federal policymakers have increasingly shunned the outright disbursing of benefits to individuals and families and favored instead less visible and more indirect incentives and subsidies, from tax breaks to payments for services to private companies. These submerged policies, Mettler shows, obscure the role of government and exaggerate that of the market. As a result, citizens are unaware of the benefits they receive, nor do they realize that the policies of the submerged state bestow their largest benefits on the most affluent Americans, exacerbating inequality. Mettler analyzes three Obama reforms—student aid, tax relief, and health care—to reveal the submerged state and its consequences, demonstrating how structurally difficult it is to enact policy reforms and even to obtain public recognition for achieving them. She concludes with recommendations for reform to help bring government policies back to the surface and encourage citizens to reclaim their voice in the political process.

The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy by Suzanne Mettler

In 2010, average real income per family grew by 2.3% but the gains were very uneven. Top 1% incomes grew by 11.6% while bottom 99% incomes grew only by 0.2%. Hence, the top 1% captured 93% of the income gains in the first year of recovery. Such an uneven recovery can help explain the recent public demonstrations against inequality. It is likely that this uneven recovery has continued in 2011 as the stock market has continued to recover. National Accounts statistics show that corporate profits and dividends distributed have grown strongly in 2011 while wage and salary accruals have only grown only modestly. Unemployment and non-employment have remained high in 2011.

This suggests that the Great Recession will only depress top income shares temporarily and will not undo any of the dramatic increase in top income shares that has taken place since the 1970s. Indeed, excluding realized capital gains, the top decile share in 2010 is equal to 46.3%, higher than in 2007.

"Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States(Updated with 2009 and 2010 estimates)" by Emmanuel Saez
March 2, 2012

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Control of the Undead

Zizek has made some similar remarks in the past about the contemporary relevance of zombies with respect to biotechnology, but still, I would have loved to have been able to attend this event as I am sure it would have been innovative in many respects. Kudos then to this Life Sciences and Pulp Fiction initiative ...

When does a life begin? When does a life end? And who decides?

Birth and death, the indisputable boundaries of life, over which none but destiny or the gods wield control, have been embedded in cultural activity since the beginning of time. It is not the actual event, but rather the confirmation of birth and death and the repetition through magical rites, religious ceremonies, bureaucratic acts and medical intervention which allow us to enter the community of humankind and leave it again upon our death. In fact, natural or biological factors are just as significant for determining the beginning and end of life as are cultural and historical factors.

The malleability of life’s boundaries through culture (which could have sparked the formation of human culture to begin with) appears to have intensified with the latest cultural and technological developments. In the current biotechnological age, that which is regarded as living finds itself in a never-ending process of negotiation. At the same time, the imaginary arsenal of creatures which exist between life and death continues to grow and diversify. In films, novels, comics, feature pages and bestseller lists, we find dreams (or nightmares) of a world of “undead”. How do the new-found possibilities offered by the “life sciences” and advances in high-tech medicine interrelate with the reproduction of undead fantasies in the imaginary realms of culture?

This event aimed to examine what we regard as “alive” in the biotechnological age. It focused on zones of transition which we haven’t (yet) defined as belonging to the realm of the living, and forms of survival and “underlife” (Erving Goffman) which test the limits of what defines and empowers humans as social and natural creatures. We wanted to examine who exactly is defining the narrative regarding the beginning and end of life and its various stages and what their interests and justification could be. This issue involves ongoing discourse and debate from a variety of fields, including medical ethics, jurisprudence, politics, religion, philosophy, art and popular culture.

The new feasibility

Modern biotechnological advances which enable us to intervene into life processes have led to a revolution which undermines our classical ethical and ontological foundation. As the molecular-biological field forges ahead with “synthesizing” life and “producing” countless embryos (“frozen angels”), the formerly irrefutable boundaries between life and death have become increasingly blurred. Are these “entities” living or dead, not yet alive or not completely dead? Do they deserve our protection? Does this life have intrinsic value beyond its use as mere bio-material, a kind of biotic waste product of technology? Even in other areas of the medical field, especially in intensive care, we are encountering new ontological grey zones. What does it mean when a human supposedly no longer possesses personal traits? How do we convey the state of a patient in a vegetative coma? Or what about the bodies from which we extract organs and tissue – are they truly dead only because a doctor has declared them brain-dead? Furthermore, new biotechnological advances have made forms of “life after death” possible – human organic tissue (cells, organs, blood, bone marrow) can exist in the bodies of others, improving their “quality of life” and postponing their death. Cell lines can be reproduced indefinitely. The possibility of living beyond one’s mortal life in the form of stored information in specialized gene banks is becoming more of a reality every day. “When a person dies nowadays, they’re not really dead.”  (Thomas Lemke)

Whoever establishes the right to define life also controls it. These issues of feasibility are not only negotiated between the scientific community and the political branch. Pop culture plays a key role in a variety of areas – artistic examination, media-based presentation of knowledge and criticism and the drastic narratives of fear and desire. Films, music, comics, illustrations, TV shows and YouTube clips present visions, nightmares, “explanations”, links, myths and parodies of what is conceivable and feasible. The undead must be iconographized in order to stimulate social discourse. Inversely, the imagery-rich discourse strongly contributes to the production of the undead. The science fiction and horror genres have accompanied the development of the life sciences and biotechnology since their inception. And this relationship is by no means one-sided. As much as pop culture delves into science, the scientific field takes advantage of pop culture, not only as a medium, but also as a quarry of ideas, images and rhetoric.

The economic logic of life enhancement

In the differentiation of biotechnologies, we discover a phantasm that claims the bio-body is a perfectible, universally formable, undetermined entity in the current of life. The age-old dream of immortality has returned in the biotechnologically updated and thoroughly materialistic hope that “this bio-body could finally be a deathless body”, as Petra Gehring writes. In view of the logic of optimization that extends to the human body and life itself, the added (economic) value of life is paradoxically rooted in the undead. “From creating ‘good genes’ to acquiring more life time to purchasing euthanasia services for assisted suicide, biotechnologically abstracted life is attractive as a consumer good.” (Gehring)

One could say that our fear of death is what motivates the life enhancement logic of biotechnologies to produce the undead. This also applies to “trans-humanistic” visions of life-enhancement. The triumph over death through biotechnological means serves as a counter programme to other cultural and religious approaches for dealing with death and thus, takes the form of a rejection of death. The ability to “reprogramme our biochemistry” and the prospect of nanotechnology enabling us to “live forever” are among the research objectives pursued by Ray Kurzweil. His work is based on the guarantee that the “biotic substrate” can continue existing using all possible means. But is this life which is made immortal the same as the life we are familiar with?  Will we be confronted with such undead life in the future? Or does undead life already exist today?

In contrast to survival, “undead life” is an unheroic, undefined state of being which is rather uncanny and possesses only limited symbolic depth because it jumbles semiotics and ethical hierarchies. The iconic image for this type of life is the zombie with all its “vital impairments”. Zombies featured for the first time in their modern form in George A. Romero's famous "Night of the Living Dead" of 1968, only one year after the world's first human heart transplant and concurrent to the announcement of brain death criteria which would allow doctors to clinically determine the onset of death. The zombie offers both simple thrills and a subtle connection to archaic-mythical, sociological, historical, technological and even philosophical questions. Its metaphorical significance extends from the slave legends and revolts to modern epidemics. Beyond that, imagining the zombie prevailing over human life in the future certainly represents a worst-case scenario for all the life sciences.

Although the “inability to live or die” confronts us with ontological, philosophical, legal and very concrete, real-life problems, we should never forget that there are places in the world where countless numbers of people are being killed or allowed to die without a thought. The inequality of (medical) resources has also led to an unsettling and unfair economy of death on a global level. In the 20th century, the zombie became a figure of social criticism of the (colonial) exploitation of the body, the dispossession of the soul and the alienation of work. Today, the zombie is very often a post-human entity which exists in a counter-society. Who or what will the zombie become in the 21st century?

Control of the undead

The control of life and death has shifted to the control of the undead. But who determines what is undead? Who stands to profit from the undead? Who will save us from the undead? A starting point of the congress will be the assumption that Foucault’s theoretical model, which he called “biopower”, i.e. a technology of power based on biological and scientifically quantifiable basic functions, such as performance or capability of reproducing, has to be expanded to apply to the category of the undead. While Foucault bases his model on the dichotomy of “living” vs. “dead” (and the bio-political distinction between “that which should live and that which must die”), modern bio-medicine has produced epistemological and political grey zones and ontological border cases, the ambiguity of which is an expression of an ethical dilemma. Normative decisions require clear-cut distinctions and categories – for example, living vs. dead, or someone vs. something. Yet no such category exists for entities that are neither living nor dead. This leads to a sort of regulative limbo; society must take up the task of providing answers to what the undead is and who controls the undead.

One point of contention lies in whether the “new”, “improved”, “prolonged” life, which biotechnology has created with self-congratulatory hype, can even pass as human life. Another is determining who is permitted to use which resources, be it technical, intellectual or cultural in nature. While science and politics struggle to reconcile what is possible and what is permissible, popular culture has already moved on to other questions. What happens to one’s mind in that zone between life and death, of which we know so little about? What happens to a society in which life forms of "varying degrees of vitality" encounter one another? What rights do the undead have?  What about their sexual and emotional lives? Who do they belong to? Must this trend end in a “war” between human and post-human life-forms? Or are (precarious) forms of coexistence possible?
Popular culture has offered answers to such questions long before political and scientific circles even began asking them. It negotiates the divides separating what is feasible, acceptable and imaginable.

The congress

The relationship between science and popular culture is generally acknowledged with embarrassment or irony. What predictions have turned out to be true? What current neuroses determine the prospective image? What sentiments are being produced and conveyed? We wish to take this relationship more seriously. It would be impossible to imagine the “undead” without the interaction of diverse pop-cultural images on scientific image production. Like the images of pop culture, those of science are also serially produced and reproduced for mass-media presentation. The figure of the “undead” haunts our literary and cinematic cultural memory and dramatically focuses our attention to the blurry boundary dividing the living from the dead. This congress examined the reciprocal relationships of theories and images and presented their mass-media dissemination through performance. Biotech experts, bioethicists, philosophers, artists, film and media professionals and pop icons have been invited to attend the congress. They met in various constellations and debated a wide range of issues in the rooms of a film set, constructed specially for the congress inside a former factory hall at Kampnagel, the theatre and cultural performance venue in Hamburg. Visitors could move freely through the rooms of the film set, each of which invokes places where the “undead” are produced. All the discussions, lectures, presentations and experiments were audio- and video-recorded. Wherever the visitors happened to be, they could decide which programme they would like to listen to via portable radio receivers with multiple channels and headphones. A film programme was shown parallel to the live events. In normal life, scientific, political, ethical and pop-cultural debates run concurrently and independently of one another. At the congress they confronted one another and productively work to make the one thing we are all trying to grasp more visible and negotiable – namely the present and future of what we regard as life.

"We are the gods now" Weyland's 2023 Ted Talk

Speaking in terms that David Noble would have understood and been aghast at, here we have a clearer indication of the meaning of the chosen title of the film, Prometheus (Frankenstein 2.0 seems equally applicable though). It will be very interesting to trace any continuities across the series, especially in light of the explicitly religious themes in Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection. As Kile M Ortogo describes the religious impulses behind the series in  "I'm a Stranger Here Myself": Forced Individuation in Alien Resurrection:

"On one level, Alien Resurrection supports Haraway's position that cyborgs (and hybrids) offer an optimistic yet unstable possibility to relinquish the separation between dialectical dualities. On the other hand, the film warns of the consequences of such unnatural and profane forms of individuation. The religious significance of the film lies in its subverting of a secularized spiritual endeavour (i.e., humanistic individuation) that once itself subverted formal, organized religions--an ironic reversal. Hybridity is shown as a dangerous and uncertain, albeit effective, alternative to human individuation. When jacked into a computer port hidden within a Bible, Call echoes Nietzsche, "Father is dead," [65] further signifying the end of traditional religion and possibly sacred spiritual practices. While it is not the first choice, this individuation may become the only option in confronting the future's spiritual degradation" (emphasis mine).

These themes are also examined at length in the edited collection, Alien Woman: Ripley as Cinematic Icon. Vincent Ward's screenplay for Alien 3 of course made the connection more explicit by using a monastery as its setting, which although later replaced by a prison planet, remained readily apparent. Indeed, Ripley's altruistic suicide at the end of the film clearly suggests a Christ-like pose. This image is still used to market the film:

Because Prometheus is a prequel though, we can expect that it will be at some remove from the themes of the later films in the series, particularly in terms of how identity is portrayed. In the later films it emerged that the other was not to be rejected, but was rather to be accepted as a part of the self.

And so once again, here's to our future of gods and monsters...

Monday, 20 February 2012

The Ticking of a "Vast Liquid Clock"

After seeing James Marriott’s on camera delivery in Burning Capital of a version of this I always remind myself every time I travel by jet of the “vast liquid clock” that all airline industries are dependent on:

The liquid clock takes under ten days to run its course. Ten days for the oil to move from 8,000 feet below sea level to 31,000 feet above sea level. Ten days for liquid rocks to melt into air. Ten days for geology laid down 57 million years ago to be incinerated into gas.

And it was my Emirates 14-hour ultra-long-haul flight from Dubai to Sydney that provided me with a ready-made pulse for dipping in and out of thoughts about this liquid clock – the instrumental piece "Tick of the Clock" by the Chromatics. Seated near the engine I sleepily absorbed the in-flight movie Drive whose opening scenes use “Tick of the Clock”. But as Jeffrey Edberg points out in his Frontier Psychiatrist review of Drive’s soundtrack, the original "15 minute techno slow-burn from the [Chromatics’] album Night Drive is whittled down to 5 minutes on the soundtrack, looped and timed effectively to match the film’s quietly mounted action”. So for all economy class flyers on long-haul flights and throughput analysts working on liquid clocks I dedicate the next 15 minutes to you

Occupy Rape Culture

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Nukemap: see what would happen if your town or city had a nuclear bomb dropped on it

After trivial rumors have surfaced about the belligerents of "the forever war"--was Osama bin Laden, as reported, really obsessed by the B-52s track "Rock Lobster", and did he have a fetish for Whitney Houston to the point where he dreamt of kidnapping her and killing Bobby Brown?--it's reassuring to know that we have the means at our disposal to learn about more far-reaching consequences: Alex Wellerstein has devised a very clever way for us to envision what happens when nuclear weapons are deployed. You can use his Nukemap to select the size of the bomb and where it would be detonated, then see the blast radius on a Google map. I just dropped a 16kt bomb on my parents' home town i.e. the same size as the "Little Boy" used on Hiroshima. In addition to the map, I was offered the following information:

Note that you can drag the target marker after you have detonated the nuke.
Effects radii for 16 kt blast (smallest to largest):
Fireball radius: 0.09 km / 0.06 mi
Maximum size of the nuclear fireball; relevance to lived effects depends on height of detonation.
Air blast radius: 0.7 km / 0.43 mi
20 psi overpressure; heavily built concrete buildings are severely damaged or demolished; fatalities approach 100%.
Radiation radius: 1.42 km / 0.88 mi
500 rem radiation dose; between 50% and 90% mortality from acute effects alone; dying takes between several hours and several weeks.
Air blast radius: 1.85 km / 1.15 mi
4.6 psi overpressure; most buildings collapse; injuries universal, fatalities widespread.
Thermal radiation radius: 2.14 km / 1.33 mi
Third-degree burns to all exposed skin; starts fires in flammable materials, contributes to firestorm if large enough.
"A convenient rule of thumb for estimating the short-term fatalities from all causes due to a nuclear attack is to count everyone inside the 5 psi blast overpressure contour around the hypocenter as a fatality. In reality, substantial numbers of people inside the contour will survive and substantial numbers outside the contour will die, but the assumption is that these two groups will be roughly equal in size and balance out. This completely ignores any possible fallout effects." (Carey Sublette)

What I'll do next is drop a 100Mt on the same location for a comparison. It would be a frightening, but worthwhile exercise, to then program the coordinates of the differing effects radii into a portable device, so when moving between them you would have a reminder of which zone you had left/were moving into. Now that's what I call "bringing it all home". Before trying it yourself though, I recommend watching this video about the 100Mt "Tsar Bomba" as another way to visualise the kind of destructive capacity that could end all life as we know it on planet Earth. There are things you can do about them.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Habeas Corpses: When the Forever War Turns Society Into a Gigantic Privatized Prison....

I've been thinking about The Forever War so much that it's triggering all kinds of associations. I'm imagining variations on the dystopic Earth described in the middle section of the book.

For example, incredible imagery from the beginning of the game Half Life 2 flashes through my mind in the darkness while listening to the album I'll Sleep When You're Dead. Picture this: the cattle train transporting you and your fellow prisoners has just rolled into the heart of the black citadel. The door slides open and you and the rest of the chain gang step out onto the asphalt in single file. You nervously raise your manacled hands in an attempt to shield your eyes from the blinding spotlight that seems to hit you out of nowhere and makes you feel totally exposed. You're the first in line, so you do your best to squint so you can see where you're supposed to go next. There's a helicopter circling above you, which makes it impossible to distinguish the harsh commands ringing in your ears from the nearby loudspeakers. However, you can make out the silhouettes of  a group of men standing in front of you. One of them is beckoning you. You take a few tentative steps towards him but then freeze up with a sharp intake of breath: the black silhouetted figures are holding nightsticks, so it looks like the reception committee will be forcing you to run the gauntlet.

You can also now see the uniforms and impassive masks worn by your captors, and in this moment you experience a great blackness rushing through the very core of your being, leaving only a sense that you are now totally owned and that no one will ever be able to help you. A shadow falls across your face as your eyes follow the hand wielding a nightstick that has raised above your head. You brace yourself for the blows you know will now surely come. But then, in that split-millisecond, you hit upon the role-reversal fantasy that you desperately hope will sustain you during the dark solitary years that lie ahead.

 It took no time at all then for you to start imagining what you would do if you stood on the other side of the line. Exactly two minutes in fact. And from that day forth you dedicated yourself to finding love on a prison ship... 

"I found love on a prison ship..." {X5}

"Number 247681-Z, step to the line"


Two types of people in this world to recognize
Conquered, and the one holding the rifle at the next in line
The crosshair in my eye is a vessel to god
The container that kept you around is in a hole in the yard

Sail the cemetery seas, half the crew leaves then move on
You have no idea how right my head is screwed on
When I wake up and put this suit on, I feel escape begin
Expirations are needed, I facilitate the end

There are two types of mornings/mournings in this life I can surmise
I wake early in the first to help supply the second type
Technician of repetition clips in the numbest of traditions its
The little wondrous blunders that can summon one's demise

I know the line to walk, talk softly, punch a clock, aim (pow) done
I see the shelter in contrition, best to limit wagging tongues
But today's a confrontation with a thought that's not assured
She's inching closer to my services and further from my world

"I found love on a prison ship..." {X8}

Does this job ever bother you, darkly creep up in your conscious too?

Nope, in fact I'm so enamored with the standard
of being handed a command to (pow), it's almost romantic
The lead giveth, I take it, if I didn't understand it

I'm saying during the tenure of your gig, have you ever herded a pris
Who despite the traitorous label, makes you nervous as a kid?
Maybe beyond a date with the lead, there's something else meant for
A prisoner with the beauty of 247290-Z

Oh God, you gotta be joking, I get it she's smoking
Go get a taste, I'll hold you down for thirty, she must be purty, you're open
Your secret's safe with me, go on a raping spree
I gotta couple numbers of my own, just return the courtesy

No, nah man, that's actually not on my mind
Somehow its different this time. I mean
Should a creature so sublime and young really be in line for the gun
And am I the one to dispense it? She seems almost defenseless
And her eyes have the surprising effect of rendering me restless

"You know, you look really pretty without handcuffs on
Without the dirt on your face..."

Like the piss and stench of the huddled traitors evaporates from the room
And in that moment I can see her truly, and she can see me too
Beneath the body armor and weaponry, my heart quietly thumps and whispers
"Drop the guns and grab her, now's the time to make your run"

Sitting in my transport as we slip through traffic veins
She doesn't ask me where we're going, only holds my hand and gaze
She's my only reason now, and my only hope to live
We pull up to the cabin way above this damn metropolis

Me and prisoner 247290-Z
Somewhere that is Soilent Green, we're living life instead
No more war on traitorism, only me and her
She can clean my gun and I could help her clean the floor

Back to something natural, we'll live off of the land
When Radon levels drop we walk the trails and talk and laugh
I tell her she's innocent, and she'll show me she's not
I kiss the number on her arm and lay her on the cot

I'm the first to touch her without gloves on
She's the first to kiss me without crying
Life before this was just dying
Me and prisoner 247290-Z
Away from all this violence, live inside each other's heads... (repeating X4)

"Number 247290-Zed, step to the line"

"Dammit Lindt, fire your weapon!"

"Yes sir"


"I found love on a prison ship..." {X7}

"She's dead Lindt, just how we wanted it. Great."
"Just how we wanted it (laughing)"
"You shot the shit out of her Lindt. I'm proud of you. Go home"

--(El-P Habeas Corpses [Draconian Love] lyrics)