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THE FISHER-FUNCTION

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WEEK SIX: 1 JUNE 2017
INTRODUCTION TO FLATLINE CONSTRUCTS



FLATLINE CONSTRUCTS:
GOTHIC MATERIALISM AND CYBERNETIC THEORY-FICTION

Mark Fisher, PhD thesis [excerpt], 1999
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0. Introduction

Isn’t it strange the way the wind makes inanimate objects move? Doesn’t it look odd when things which usually just lie there lifeless suddenly start fluttering. Don’t you agree? I remember once looking out onto an empty square, watching huge scraps of paper whirling angrily round and round, chasing one another as if each had sworn to kill the others; and I couldn’t feel the wind at all since I was standing in the lee of a house. A moment later they seemed to have calmed down, but then once again they were seized with an insane fury and raced all over the square in a mindless rage, crowding into a corner then scattering again as some new madness came over them, until finally they disappeared round a corner. There was just one thick newspaper that couldn’t keep up with the rest. It lay there on the cobbles, full of spite and flapping spasmodically, as if it were out of breath and gasping for air.

As I watched, I was filled with an ominous foreboding. What if, after all, we living beings were nothing more than such scraps of paper? Could there not be a similar unseeable, unfathomable ‘wind’ blowing us from place to place and determining our actions, whilst we, in our simplicity, believe we are driven by free will? What if the life within us were nothing more than some mysterious whirlwind? The wind whereof it says in the Bible, ‘Thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth’? Do we not sometimes dream we have plunged our hands into deep water and caught silvery fish, when all that has happened is that our hands have been caught in a cold draught? [Gustave Meyrinck, The Golem (Sawtry: Dedalus, 1995), pp. 54–55. A crucial aspect of the legend concerns the writing of a secret name (the name of god) either onto a piece of paper or directly onto the Golem’s head. In some cases, the Golem is animated by a letter of the secret name being deleted.]


Today’s children […] are comfortable with the idea that inanimate objects can both think and have a personality. But they no longer worry if the machine is alive. They know it is not. The issue of aliveness has moved into the background as though it is settled. But the notion of the machine has been expanded to include having a psychology. In retaining the psychological mode as the preferred way of talking about computers, children allow computational machines to retain an animistic trace, a mark of having passed through a stage where the issue of the computer’s aliveness is a focus of intense consideration. [Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, (London: Phoenix, 1996), 83. Gothic Materialism finds a number of these terms uncongenial (for instance: life, screen, identity). Indeed, Unlife Beyond the Screens could serve as another subtitle for this study.]

These two passages—the first from Gustave Meyrinck’s 1927 novel The Golem, the second from Sherry Turkle’s 1995 work of ‘cyber-psychology’ Life on the Screen—take us directly to what will be the guiding preoccupation of this thesis. Meyrinck’s novel is a recounting of an old narrative: the Kabbalistic tale of the rabbi who animates lifeless clay, giving form to the monstrous Golem. The myth has many variants. In many cases—and in anticipation of Shelley’s Frankenstein and Goethe’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice­—the Golem, once animated, and no longer subject to its master’s control, runs amok. Turkle’s account, meanwhile, concerns the response of children to those newest of cybernetic machines, the personal computer. Across time, Meyrinck’s character and the children Turkle is studying have an independent insight into what will be called here the Gothic flatline: a plane where it is no longer possible to differentiate the animate from the inanimate and where to have agency is not necessarily to be alive.

It might seem that the children have now accepted what Meyrinck’s character found so terrifying. Yet the question Meyrinck’s character poses is not quite the one Turkle entertains—which is to say, what if the machines were alive?—but something more radical: what if we are as ‘dead’ as the machines? To pose even this second question seems immediately inadequate: what sense would it be to say that ‘everything’—human beings and machines, organic and nonorganic matter—is ‘dead’? Much of what follows is an attempt to answer this question.

Donna Haraway’s celebrated observation that “our machines are disturbingly lively, while we ourselves are frighteningly inert” [Donna Haraway, “The Cyborg Manifesto”, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (London: Free Association Books, 1991), 152] has given this issue a certain currency in contemporary cyber-theory. But what is interesting about Haraway’s remark—its challenge to the oppositional thinking that sets up free will against determinism, vitalism against mechanism—has seldom been processed by a mode of theorizing which has tended to reproduce exactly the same oppositions. These theoretical failings, it will be argued here, arise from a resistance to pursuing cybernetics to its limits (a failure evinced as much by cyberneticists as by cultural theorists, it must be added). Unraveling the implications of cybernetics, it will be claimed, takes us out to the Gothic flatline. The Gothic flatline designates a zone of radical immanence. And to theorize this flatline demands a new approach, one committed to the theorization of immanence. This thesis calls that approach Gothic Materialism.

The conjoining of the Gothic with Materialism poses a challenge to the way that the Gothic has been thought. It is a deliberate attempt to disassociate the Gothic from everything supernatural, ethereal or otherworldly. The principal inspiration for this theorization comes from Wilhelm Worringer via Deleuze-Guattari. Both Worringer and Deleuze-Guattari identify the Gothic with “nonorganic life”, and whilst this is an equation we shall have cause to query, Gothic Materialism as it is presented here will be fundamentally concerned with a plane that cuts across the distinction between living and nonliving, animate and inanimate. It is this anorganic continuum, it will be maintained, that is the province of the Gothic.

At the same time as it aims to displace the Gothic from some of its existing cultural associations, the conjoining of the Gothic with materialism also aims to provoke a rethinking of what materialism is (or can be). Once again, Deleuze-Guattari are the inspirations here, for a rethinking of materialism in terms closer to Horror fiction than to theories of social relations. Deleuze-Guattari’s abstract materialism depends upon assemblages such as the Body without Organs (a key Gothic concept, we shall aim to demonstrate), while in their attacks on psychoanalysis (their defence, for instance, of the reality—as opposed to the merely phantasmatic quality—of processes such as becoming-animal) it is often as if they are defending Horror narratives—of vampirism and lycanthropy—against a psychoanalytic reality principle. Moreover, the Deleuze-Guattari take-up of authors as various as Artaud, Spinoza, Schreber and Marx can, we hope to establish, be seen as quintessentially Gothic: what Deleuze-Guattari always emphasise in these writers is the theme of anorganic continuum. But the non- or anorganic Deleuze-Guattari introduce us to is not the dead matter of conventional mechanistic science; on the contrary, it swarms with strange agencies.

The role of cybernetics as we shall theorise it is very much parallel to the theoretical direction Deleuze-Guattari have taken. Cybernetics, it will be argued, has always been haunted by the possibilities Deleuze-Guattari lay out (even if, in certain cases, it has inhibited or impeded them). As a materialist theory, it, too, we will attempt to show, has tended to challenge the boundary between the animate and the inanimate. Like Deleuze-Guattari, it has questioned the confinement of the attribution of agency only to subjects. The kind of fiction with which this study will be concerned—what has variously been labeled cyberpunk, imploded science fiction and body horror (amongst other things)—has been exercised by many of the same concerns as cybernetic theory. Specifically, these texts have been fascinated by the concepts of agency-without-a subject and bodies-without-organs, emerging in the ambivalent form of the blade runners, terminators, and AIs that haunt current mass-mediated-nightmare.

Gothic Materialism is interested in the ways in which what would appear ultramodern—the gleaming products of a technically sophisticated capitalism—end up being described in the ostensibly archaic terms familiar from Horror fiction: zombies, demons. But it will resist the temptation to think of this ‘demonization of the cybernetic’ as the revival of “something familiar and old-established in the mind” [Sigmund Freud. ‘The Uncanny’, in Art and Literature (Penguin Freud Library, 1990), p. 363], preferring to think of it as the continuation of a nonorganic line that is positively antagonistic to progressive temporality. As Iain Hamilton Grant puts it, “the Terminator has been there before, distributing microchips to accelerate its advent and fuel the primitives’ fears.” [‘At the Mountains of Madness: The Demonology of the New Earth and the Politics of Becoming’, in Deleuze and Philosophy: The Difference Engineer (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 97.] As we shall see, the nonorganic line as occupied by Gothic Materialism is to be distinguished both from ‘the supernatural’ (the supposed province of Horror fiction) and ‘speculative technology’ (the home of Science Fiction).

The phrase “something familiar and old-established in the mind” belongs, of course, to Freud, who will emerge in the terms of this study as a somewhat ambivalent figure, sometimes an ally, sometimes a foe, of Gothic Materialism. Writing of ‘animist traces’, Turkle is alluding to Freud’s famous essay on ‘The Uncanny’, from which this phrase comes, an essay written almost directly contemporaneously with The Golem. Here, Freud famously flirts with the problem of the inanimate becoming-active. I say ‘flirts’ because Freud—in what, in the terms of the present thesis, is a clear anti-Gothic gesture—moves to dismiss the importance of this theme. (Nevertheless, his own compulsive need to repeatedly reiterate it, has led to a persistent association in critical writings of the uncanny with exactly the question of what should not be alive acting as if it were.) Feelings of the uncanny, Freud insists, are not to be attributed to the confusion of the animate with inanimate, but to a fear of castration. We shall examine Freud’s essay on ‘The Uncanny’ in more detail later, but will note, for now, Freud’s own failure to keep at bay the problem of animism; the theme has its own kind of living death, stalking him posthumously with the implacability of any zombie. Its very persistence constitutes a powerful argument for another of Freud’s theses in ‘The Uncanny’—one that Gothic Materialism will find much more congenial—the strange, nondialectical, functioning of the ‘un’ prefix. Thinking, no doubt, of his own remarks on the absence of negation in the unconscious, Freud establishes that the ‘un’ of ‘unheimliche’ does not straightforwardly reverse the meaning of the word ‘heimlich’. In a—fittingly—disturbing way, ‘unheimliche’ includes heimlich.

‘The Uncanny’ leaves us with the impression that the source of Freud’s critical deflections and circumlocutions is something powerful indeed. Castration may be terrifying, but it is not as disturbing as what Freud seems so keen to bury—precisely because it is a matter of terror, or fear. Terror or fear have an object—what is feared—and a subject—he [See Freud’s essays on ‘The Unconscious’ and ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ in Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis (Penguin Freud Library, 1991) for his argument that the concept of negation is alien to the unconscious.] who fears—whereas the ‘ominous foreboding’ Meyrinck’s character experiences arises from the inability to differentiate subject from object. There is a dispersal of subjectivity onto an indifferent plane that is simultaneously too distant and too intimate to be apprehended as anything objective.

This thesis will approach this plane via theorists who have been associated with a critique of psychoanalysis: Deleuze-Guattari, whom we have already introduced, and Baudrillard. Provisionally, we could identify Gothic Materialism with the work of Deleuze-Guattari and ‘Cybernetic Theory-Fiction’ with the work of Baudrillard. But this—simple—opposition, whilst schematically useful, is ultimately misleading. Baudrillard, we shall see, can make a contribution to Gothic Materialism, whilst Deleuze-Guattari’s work can certainly be described as Theory-Fiction. Baudrillard’s interest in cyberpunk fiction and film, his fascination with automata and simulacra, make him both the object of a Gothic Materialist theory, and a contributor to it.

One of the aims of Flatline Constructs is to play off Deleuze-Guattari and Baudrillard against each other on the question the Meyrinck’s passage poses. In developing theories radically antipathetic to subjectivity, Deleuze-Guattari and Baudrillard have occupied parallel trajectories, sometimes closely intermeshing, sometimes radically diverging. One common feature is the—cybernetic—emphasis on code (as we shall see, one major difference between them concerns the role of decoding).

Baudrillard can also be placed as probably the principal theorist of what we might call the negativized Gothic; Baudrillard is the inheritor of a social critical tradition that has tended to cast its narratives about the decline of civilization in terms of what it would no doubt think of as metaphors of inorganic unvitality: dead labour (Marx), mechanical reproduction (Benjamin). Standing at the demetaphorized terminal of this trajectory, Baudrillard’s work frequently amounts to what is, in effect, a negativized Gothic, which “takes the Guy Debord / J. G. Ballard fascination with ‘the virtual commodification or crystallization of organic life towards total extinction’ further, towards narrating a technological triumph of the inanimate—a negative eschatology, the nullity of all opposition, the dissolution of history, the neutralization of difference and the erasure of any possible configuration of alternate actuality.” [Mark Downham, ‘Cyberpunk’, Vague, No. 21, January 1989, p. 42.] Production is displaced by a totalized (re)production that a priori excludes novelty; “new” objects and cultural phenomena increasingly operate on an exhausted but implacable closed-loop, which—in some sense—recapitulates itself in advance. ‘Necrospection’. [Cf. Jean Baudrillard ‘Necrospective’, in The Transparency of Evil (London: Verso, 1993), pp. 89-99. Like Jarry’s dead cyclist, contemporary metropolitan culture only appears to be moving forward because of the inertial weight of its own past (a past it simultaneously annihilates as the past, precisely by continually [re]instantiating it as the present).]

Another of the features Deleuze-Guattari share with Baudrillard is the importance they place on fiction. Which leads us to the second term of this study’s subtitle—Cybernetic Theory-Fiction—a phrase it is worth unpacking a little now. It is Baudrillard who is most associated with the emergence of theory-fiction as a mode. And it is the role of “third-order simulacra”—associated, by Baudrillard, very closely with cybernetics, that, Baudrillard says, “puts an end” to theory and fiction as separate genres. By circulating a series of exemplary “fictional” texts—Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome—throughout the study, we will aim to unravel something of what is at stake in the claim that the era of cybernetics eliminates—or smears—the distinction between theory and fiction. In some cases, the performance of theory is quite literal: The Atrocity Exhibition and Videodrome include characters who are theorists (Dr Nathan, Professor O’Blivion). But this study will want to take Baudrillard’s claim very seriously and approach fictional texts, not simply as literary texts awaiting theoretical ‘readings’, but as themselves already intensely-theoretical.