Dark Curricula: December 2016
Disturbances. Extrapolations. Exaggerations. A human created world, humans as a force of nature. All the fast food you can eat. Reality TV stars leading the most powerful economic and technological nations the world has known. Dead celebrities. Massive media events. This is the planet Earth, apparently.
The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing
This is not a book that grabbed me initially. The first few chapters are difficult to chew, and I worried that I picked up a dry academic tome. It expands however, as the topic expands, into an exploration of economics, biology, farming, salvaging, international supply chains, in a completely fascinating series of chapters that hedge in the subject, circling it, almost strategically, to make you understand how a single mushroom can be an example of an enormous process and ecosystem. From something I worried I wouldn't finish, I found myself constantly talking about this book and thinking about it. The author, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing is a professor who helps direct the Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene. There's argument about the validity of "Anthropocene" as a term, but she describes it more succinctly in the book as "disturbance" -- argue about the impact of humans on the ecosystem as good or bad, down to very specific locations and examples, but I don't think you can argue about the term "disturbance" and the sense of scale of impact. As exampled in this book, studying this means some very cross-discipline knowledge and approaches. Endlessly interesting read.
Oryx and Crake
In keeping with the theme of human generated change, of disturbance, I was drawn to the Pigoon. What's a Pigoon? In "Oryx And Crake" which Atwood sets in a near future with existing tech, the Pigoon is a pig used to harvest organs for human transplant. There are other very believable monstrosities in this book, some technical, some philosophical. I love how this book is structured, in short chapters over a period of time, between the evolution of the main character from a child "Jimmy" to one of the survivors of a human created apocalypse who calls himself "Snowman". The exaggeration of all things human, extremes of even the tiniest artifact, is satirical but never at expense of the story. All around great read, there are two other novels in this setting, the "MaddAddam" Series.
The Atrocity Exhibition
J. G. Ballard
Celebrity, reality TV, sexualization, a cascade of images generated from pop culture, now just called "culture", losing all of the subtlety of the original, these are the things Ballard digested and collected into "The Atrocity Exhibition". It might be considered experimental, but I consider it a reaction. Historically what interests me here is Ballard's innate understanding of the velocity and obscenity of celebrity and the media factory feeding around it, and the population caught within the hypnotic, harmful, disjointedness of it all. Ballard talking about "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan":
In his commercials Reagan used the smooth, teleprompter-perfect tones of the TV auto-salesman to project a political message that was absolutely the reverse of bland and reassuring. A complete discontinuity existed between Reagan's manner and body language, on the one hand, and his scarily simplistic far-right message on the other. Above all, it struck me that Reagan was the first politician to exploit the fact that his TV audience would not be listening too closely, if at all, to what he was saying, and indeed might well assume from his manner and presentation that he was saying the exact opposite of the words actually emerging from his mouth.
Having recently read a couple of early Ballard novels ("The Burning World" and "The Drowned World"), this notable book, or series of vignettes, seems to be more than experimentation but I think a real condensation of all things Ballardian. And in that way, what may have caused shock or outrage at the time, now reads like a spreadsheet of actual events. Surely, as others have argued recently, it is impossible to write satire anymore with the current state of the world. Ballard nailed it here at the time however.