Dark Curricula: January 2017
This may be something that bears repeating, nothing is normal anymore. We've stepped over some sort of threshold where giant surrealist concepts careen in the streets, fighting with Nazis while Cthulhu rolls around in the background, ripe with an anthropocene rash. If we collectively survive the year, I'd be surprised. I know we definitely won't end the year the same way we started it. The beginning of this month was calibration, now we live in resistance mode.
The Last Days Of New Paris
I have never disliked a Mieville book. Some are stronger than others, but I burn through all of them. His imagination overcomes any hesitation I have—his complete commitment to his vision of the world he's presenting is infectious. Here, like Rail Sea, or Kraken, he starts with a kernel, a supposition, and runs with it. What if Surrealism had been manifested concretely during the second world war? What if there was a sort of rip in the structure of what we believe is the world and nature around us, via an S-Bomb, a Surrealist Bomb, and the painting, sculptures and other creations of the Surrealists become living things. Without argument, this places us in Paris. Like several of his other books, his hero is a young man who is thrown into the chaos of "Mieville-World" as an exercise in growing up. This is not formulaic I think, just conducive to his initial world building impulses. And satisfying. Balance the French resistance with Nazi's who are trying to raise their own manifestations of things from an Aryan Hell, and you've got—not my favorite Mieville book—but definitely Mieville worth reading.
Ellis has always been a master of the succinct phrase, the thing that wraps up modern fractures. The one that jumps out at me this time is "abyss gaze".
Some people call it “abyss gaze.” Gaze into the abyss all day and the abyss will gaze into you. There are two types of people who think professionally about the future: Foresight strategists who think about ways to evade Our Coming Doom; and strategic forecasters, who think about ways to prepare for Our Coming Doom. It’s something you can’t do for long.
This, like other Ellis scenarios, is character driven, and full of ripe dialogue and radical exposition. The characters are people who have worked on the edge of future concepts, military, commercial, social, urban. He's brought these characters together before, but now they're in a place called "Normal Head", which is an institute for those who have burned out, broken down, or otherwise freaked the fuck out over the "abyss gaze".
Anyone who works in tech, especially at the higher levels, who interacts with the kind of aggressive data gathering "disruption" and algo obsessed crowd, I'm sure can see the bend sinister in the latest applications that reduce former notions of individuality and creativity and identity to processes now essentially beyond our control. Also, anyone who has been involved with climate data, military R&D, and large psyops, which now are about as common as breakfast cereal, yet are somehow ignored by a mentally throttled public that feeds greedily on the social media teet, would be familiar with this newest sense of despair.
Well. Maybe you can tell I'm sympathetic, an experience I may or may not have experience with (wink), one that some may believe is cynical. And I think that's the underlying point. And that point is fairly troublesome, and fairly profound.
Unfortunately the story around it doesn't quite hold up. I mean, Ellis has cut his teeth on comics, so there's that kind of narrative encapsulation. Which is fine. But it doesn't coalesce, it doesn't transcend the form itself. Enjoyed it, but really wanted more out of the ending and the conclusions. Still worth picking up.
Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene
After stumbling into learning more than I'd ever planned about matsutake mushrooms and the legal and illegal economies around them in The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, I marched right into the concepts of human stewardship and/or human disruption. Haraway's immediate premise is that "Anthropocene", the era in which humans are the primary active force, is egotistic, and more properly called the "Chthulucene".
Specifically, unlike either the Anthropocene or the Capitalocene, the Chthulucene is made up of ongoing multispecies stories and practices of becoming-with in times that remain at stake, in precarious times, in which the world is not finished and the sky has not fallen — yet. We are at stake to each other. Unlike the dominant dramas of Anthropocene and Capitalocene discourse, human beings are not the only important actors in the Chthulucene, with all other beings able simply to react. The order is reknitted: human beings are with and of the Earth, and the biotic and abiotic powers of this Earth are the main story.
A lot of words and concepts thrown around. Or I should say stewed. Reading went like this: "Here's a thing. Here's a thing. Here's a concept. Here's what this notable person did. Here's a thing again. See?" One of the frequent, fun word in play throughout is "tentacular". And the book itself is tentacular, it reaches around, a confusing set of arms, and in the end, I'm not sure what was really decided, or what really was said. While this planned conceptual haphazardness worked in The Mushroom at the End of the World I don't think it works as well here.