An excerpt from Chapter 1 of Scott Bukatman Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993) with postscript written for this issue of Continuum. Reproduced with permission of Duke University Press.
Writings on the mass media, and television in particular, concentrate on the passivity of the audience in the face of the spectacle. The seductiveness of the media have apparently resulted in the decline of moral values, the trivialising of politics, the increase of illiteracy, shorter attention spans and a heightened capacity for violent behavior - all from the surrender of the consumer. (See the books by Mander and Winn for the most hysterical examples. Of course, I would not entirely separate myself from such a view.) The invasion of "the real" by the proliferating forms of "the spectacle" in much science fiction and critical theory might in fact serve as a metaphorical projection of the threatened subversion of language and its claims to veracity. In Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953), to take an obvious example, books are burned and written language has been forcibly superseded by television - an explicit turning against the word. Book burning is no idle choice on Bradbury's part, summoning up as it does overwhelming images of the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and the successive waves of fundamental hysteria in contemporary America. The overthrow of the Word is presented as tantamount to the overthrow of Reason itself, leaving an infantilized - if not barbaric - citizenry poised passively before the pseudo-satisfactions of the spectacle; bereft of the ability to think, judge, and know. The 1966 film adaptation by Truffaut emphasises this by limiting reading-matter to wordless comic books, an evocation of the pre-literate status of the young child. In fact, and as a large number of contemporary artists (Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, for example) have acknowledged, the Word has become a complicit part of the image culture, especially within the constructs of consumer society.
It seems that many works about the spectacle are, in fact, concerned with preserving and protecting the power of the word against the barbarising forces of image culture (which is frequently linked to commodity culture and mass forms, most unlike the rarefied discourses of criticism or literature). I would further suggest that the anxiety surrounding the spectacle is not privileging any specific discursive form such as written or spoken language, but that it is directed at the feared manipulation of representational truth at a time when the complex interplay of data and representations have usurped earlier forms of cultural and physical engagement and validation. Television, computers and the hybrid forms of virtual reality having arisen to comprise Toffler's blip culture, the loss of the often unexamined, empirically accepted, category of "the real" has instantiated a crisis throughout our hardwired cultural circuits.
The perception of a spectacular assault on the dominance of written language stands revealed as a defense of pre-electronic representational forms (writing, photography and even cinema) which actually reifies a pre-electronic, empirically verifiable definition of "the real". Although much science fiction participates in precisely such a reification, a significant set of reflexive works, across a range of media, acknowledge a more complex relation with a world increasingly defined by electronic data circulation and management. A more reflexive critical discourse is required to combat a writing in which the critic or scholar is inscribed as the bearer of truths produced through "natural" language structures.
It is in this context that the appropriation of the forms of science fiction, and what Delany has called its "reading protocols", can be considered. If, as Delany and de Lauretis argue, science fiction de-naturalises language through an inherent reflexivity of form, then something is added in what we may term the science fiction of the spectacle. Textuality now becomes an explicit theme in the science fiction work; language will comprise the content of the discourse as well as determine its form. Reflexivity is extended as the text turns in upon its own production. The constant meditation upon the mediation of the real, the usurpation of traditional experience, and the reduction of reality to a representation is emphasized by a text that foregrounds its own textual status, a text that emphasises the estrangement of the sign. The science fiction of the spectacle, even in its more diluted instances, acknowledges its own complicity with the spectacularising of reality.
Within the matrices of consumer culture, science fiction offers a new complexity of form to replace the absolutism and transparency of most writing. The polemic is rendered spectacular in an avoidance of any assumption of an uncontaminated discourse and in a diegetic and textual acknowledgment of an already-existent complicity. The simultaneous technologism and reflexivity of the text permits a deeper engagement with the issues raised by the spectacle while maintaining the distance of the writerly, the ambivalent, the self-aware. Whether used by Toffler to evoke an era of technological promise and prophecy or by Baudrillard to construct a labyrinthine discourse of technocratic control, science fiction functions as a dominant language within the society of the spectacle. As J.G. Ballard wrote, 'Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute' ("Introduction" 97).
The analysis performed in this section concentrates on the axiomatic form of electronic spectacle: television. Many of the SF texts reviewed here induce a deliberate state of informational overload, pushing language beyond its transparent narrational function to a largely visual spectacularity, leaving the reader to grapple with the (more or less) random patterns of noise and criss-crossing informational systems. A prevalent concern with the representation of the electronic, information "noise" which pervades (post)modern culture is evident in recent science fiction, a generic transformation which acknowledges the text's complicity in the maintenance and construction of the society of the spectacle. In these works, the image no longer exists as a sign, but rather as an object: a commodity, a virus, a weapon, an identity. This section, then, traces the first phase of terminal identity: the recognition and ambivalent acceptance of the spectacularization of human culture and human beings.
The technologies of the mass media have been crucial to the maintenance of instrumental reason as a form of rational (and hence natural, invisible and neutral) domination. 'Domination has its own aesthetics', wrote Marcuse, 'and democratic domination has its democratic aesthetics' (65). The plurality of channel selections serves as a kind of guarantee of the freedom of the subject to choose, to position oneself within the culture, while the constant flow of images, sounds and narratives seemingly demonstrate a cultural abundance and promise. In the era of implosion, the citizen has become a supplicant before the altar of the spectacle, a TV self, without any need for overt coercion.
Yet, as so many have argued, the range of choice is illusory. The viewer is always passive before the spectacle; the act of viewing amounts to an act of surrender. 1 Television functions to maintain order; it provides the state with the unprecedented ability to interpellate many of its citizens into the proper socio-political positions with unprecedented simultaneity and constancy. Those who believe that the media serve simply to barbarize culture frequently miss the continual level of social recuperation which occurs. 2 Such recuperation can occur through the functioning of the media itself, quite apart from issues of content. In an early article, Jean Baudrillard wrote: 'It is useless to fantasize about state projection of police control through TV...TV, by virtue of its mere presence, is a social control in itself. There is no need to imagine it as a state periscope spying on everybody's life - the situation as it stands is more efficient than that: it is the certainty that people are no longer speaking to each other...' ("Requiem" 172). 'TV...is a social control in itself', regardless of the specific images or messages the medium transmits or promulgates.
There are ways to challenge or even to resist the controlling power of the spectacle from within spectacular culture itself. The means of resistance have themselves become spectacular in form. One example of such a "spectacular anti-spectacularity", and one which serves as a touchstone for much science fiction of the spectacle, is found in Burroughs' appropriation of science fiction for his own 'mythology of the space age'. It is in the field of language that his interest in the genre primarily resides. There is no writer's work in which the dislocating power of the language of science fiction is brought more fully into play.
In Burroughs' mythos, language and communication serve as the controlling forces of instrumental reason. Burroughs and his collaborator Brion Gysin evolved the cut-up as a simultaneous form of appropriation and resistance: 'Cut the words and see how they fall' ("Cut-Up" 36). The cut-up clearly inherits from the modernist history of collage, in which nontraditional and aesthetically undervalued materials were combined with the fine arts tradition of painting. Collage repudiated the purity of the art, the definition of artistic beauty, and the very hand of the artist. Further, as in the work of Schwitters, the collage also acknowledged the aesthetic dimension found in the products of a culture that was becoming increasingly industrialized and consumerist. The cut-up continues this tradition of textual heterogeneity. The text (original or co-opted) is folded, cut, and reshaped into a new, but randomized, continuity. It is to be deployed as a new form of poetic creation, one which is anti-rational through the inadvertent collisions of the rearranged pieces of a cut-up page of prose. 'You cannot will spontaneity', he wrote, 'But you can introduce the unpredictable spontaneous factor with a pair of scissors' ("Cut-Up" 35). In the Nova Trilogy, the cut-up becomes an hallucinatory science fiction language: an alien - or insect - discourse that constantly devours itself.
The cut-up becomes a critical weapon against the spectacular society. Like the randomly assembled "poems" of a Dadaist performance, in "The Electronic Revolution" (1971), Burroughs advocates extending the cut-up to both audio- and video-tape. This passage functions almost as an aleatory score for a cut-up (de)composition: 'To discredit opponents: Take a recorded Wallace speech, cut in stammering coughs sneezes hiccoughs snarls pain screams fear whimperings apoplectic sputterings slobbering drooling idiot noises sex and animal sound effects and play it back in the streets subways stations parks political rallies' (125). He adds, 'The control of the mass media depends on laying down lines of association. When the lines are cut the associational connections are broken. President Johnson burst into a swank apartment, held three maids at gunpoint, 26 miles north of Saigon yesterday' (126-127). The spectacular forms of mass media are cut-up, randomized and returned to circulation. The scrambling of language defamiliarises it, revealing its pervasiveness and operant illusions. Burroughs performs an incisive violence on the body of the text (this textual machine is a medical apparatus), and the incoherence of the results are obvious. The "images" produced by this textual body are freed from any illusory totality to instead serve as the partial and fragmented representations that they are. Relations among signifiers having been lost, each must then exist in glittering isolation, outside temporality, outside history. The cut-up techniques reject the position of control or mastery over the image/text, replacing the rational telos of the narrator with the random bombardments of the spectacular society.
The cut-up enhances the displacement of Burroughs' time-tripping narratives, generates a surfeit of science-fictional neologisms, and dislocates the reader searching for the rationality of linear structure. Cut-ups of audio-tapes and filmstrips permit us to turn the mechanisms of the spectacle against their creators (the Nova Mobs or the Subliminal Kids). Finally, cut-ups reveal the very strategies of spectacle itself. J.G. Ballard, stressing the importance of collision and opposition in Burroughs' writing, notes, 'Far from being an arbitrary stunt, Burroughs' cut-in method is thus seen as the most appropriate technique for the marriage of opposites, as well as underlining the role of recurrent images in all communication' ("Mythmaker" 106).
More recently, the transitory sense of the information age is eloquently demonstrated in Don Delillo's novel White Noise, another work that shares much with media criticism and science fiction. "White noise" is, after all, the soundtrack that accompanies this era of Baudrillardian implosion. Delillo mixes diegetic dialogue and TV chatter in a collage reminiscent of cut-ups, but here the collage is not the result of a subversive authorial intervention, but is instead diegetically anchored to demonstrate the blip culture bombardment which already prohibits the reception of information. Delillo's characters search for a level of phenomenal, emotional reality against the white noise of a culture where the only monument is "The Most Photographed Barn in America" and where Hitler is an academic department. White Noise takes place entirely within the cut-up continuum of Burroughs and the imploded America of Baudrillard's hyperbolic prophecies.
The terrain is changing within the postmodern condition, and under the pressures of a continuous movement of perceived implosion the landscape is increasingly figured as a mediascape (Kroker and Cook 13). The science fiction writer who has been the longest inhabitant of this new territory is J. G. Ballard. Ballard's science fiction has rejected the explosive trajectories associated with the macro-cosmic realms of faster-than-light travel and galactic empire, in favor of the imploded realms of what he has termed 'inner space'. 3 Such a term might imply that Ballard is constructing a psychological science fiction, a science fiction centered upon individual subjectivity, but this is not quite the inner space to which he refers. His work is marked instead by its sustained refusal of individual psychology and his construction of a world which itself bears the marks of the writer's own interior, but socially derived, landscape. The cities, jungles, highways, and suburbs of Ballard's fiction are relentlessly claustrophobic, yet empty; spectacular, but not seductive; relentlessly meaningful, yet resistant to logic. The repetition and obsessiveness of these works suspends temporality while it shrinks space. His characters are without ego, and they become only a part of the landscape, and the landscape becomes a schizophrenic projection of a de-psychologized, but fully colonized, consciousness. As in melodrama or surrealism, everything becomes at once objective and subjective.
The iconography of Ballard's landscape bears strong affinities to Pop Art, and especially the darker Pop of the British wing of the movement, as represented by the work of the Independent Group in the late 1950s and early 1960s ('Artists were revealing a sense of the city [...] as a symbol-thick scene...' (Alloway 40)). To the Independent Group, 'science fiction was one of the few areas in which modern technology was being discussed' (Robbins 61). The future as presented in Crash (1973), High-Rise (1975) and The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) might well be called, after the famed IG exhibition of contemporary art, "This is Tomorrow". That 1956 event, celebrating the arrival of the present into the future, also turned to science fiction as the metaphorical discourse most appropriate to contemporary life, but rejected much of the utopian flavor of the genre. Commercial and technological cultures were accepted as fact in Pop, just as the SF in the British journal New Worlds (a frequent publisher of Ballard) advocated: 'Before we begin to investigate [the effects of a new industrial revolution], we must accept the existence of the situation. This [...] is what authors are now beginning to do' (Colvin 348).
There is thus a link between science fiction and Pop. 'In essence', Ballard has written, 'science fiction is a response to science and technology as perceived by the inhabitants of the consumer goods society' ("Fictions" 99, emphasis mine). New Worlds' fiction, dominated by the influence of J.G. Ballard and its editor Michael Moorcock, was littered with the signs of consumer culture: advertisements, news broadcasts and billboards; commodities, chrome and cars; re-entering space capsules; 4 Jackie Kennedy, Andy Warhol and Lee Harvey Oswald; cleaning products, satellites and supermarkets; Elizabeth Taylor. 5
This panoply of pop images and forms comprises the mediascape (in Situationism and SF): an external reality ontologically transformed by the multiplicity of electronic signals in the air. Reality becomes an extension of the mass media - television especially, but also color magazines, billboards, rock and roll radio, and even cinema and newspapers (TRAK news agency - 'We don't report the news - We write it' (Burroughs Machine 152)). First the public's response to reality and finally reality itself are affected. David Pringle notes that in stories such as Ballard's "The Subliminal Man", in which huge "billboards" flash a constant barrage of subliminal advertising messages, 'even the unconscious is annexed by the media landscape' (Pringle 391). Television especially exerts a fascination for Ballard: 'I think it's terribly important to watch TV. I think there's a sort of minimum number of hours of TV you ought to watch every day, and unless you're watching 3 or 4 hours of TV a day you're just closing your eyes to [...] the creation of reality that TV achieves' ("Quotations" 158).
Ballard's story, "The Intensive Care Unit" (1977), is an Information Age update of E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" (1909), and it also recalls the social science fiction of the 1950s with an unprecedented savagery. Ballard stages a future in which all social interaction occurs through the medium of television - schooling, marriage, child-rearing - there is no unmediated personal contact. The surrogate experience provided by the media has fully usurped, and even surpassed, the potentials of actual existence. A doctor by training, the protagonist observes as his 'more neurotic patients [...] presented themselves with the disjointed cutting, aggressive zooms and split-screen techniques that went far beyond the worst excesses of experimental cinema' (198). By contrast, his own family life is modelled on a very different cinema: '"I relished the elegantly stylized way in which we now presented ourselves to each other - fortunately we had moved from the earnestness of Bergman and the more facile mannerisms of Fellini and Hitchcock to the classical serenity and wit of Rene Clair and Max Ophuls, though the children, with their love of the hand-held camera, still resembled so many budding Godards"' (201-202).
Cinematic style becomes a part of social and gestural rhetoric, an integral part of the presentation of self in the era of terminal identity. Mysteriously driven to meet his wife and children in the flesh, the protagonist triggers off a kind of nuclear family war. '"True closeness is television closeness"', he belatedly concludes. '"Only at a distance could one find that true closeness to another human being which, with grace, might transform itself into love"' (204).
Ballard's mission is to sift through the array of signals in order to locate the latent meanings in the mediascape - to tease out the "deviant logic" found in the random geometries of pop-historical artifacts: 'In the past we have always assumed that the external world around us has represented reality, however confusing or uncertain, and that the inner world of our minds, its dreams, hopes, ambitions, represented the realm of fantasy and the imagination. These roles, too, it seems to me, have been reversed' (Crash 98). The distinction between 'latent and manifest content [...] now needs to be applied to the external world of so-called reality'. Objects in juxtaposition allude to an infinity of significance which reason alone cannot possibly contain: 'Captain Webster studied the documents laid out on Dr. Nathan's demonstration table. These were: (1) a spectroheliogram of the sun; (2) tarmac and take-off checks for the B29 Superfortress Enola Gay; (3) electroencephalogram of Albert Einstein; (4) transverse section through a Pre-Cambrian Trilobite; (5) photograph taken at noon, 7th August, 1945, of the sand-sea, Quattara Depression; (6) Max Ernst's 'Garden Airplane Traps'. He turned to Dr. Nathan. "You say these constitute an assassination weapon?" ' (Weapon 34). Ballard's reference to Ernst inevitably recalls that artist's Dadaist recourse to collage as the means of exploring the relation between the private psyche and the public world. Drawing his materials from medical and mechanical catalogs, as well as engravings and illustrations from the history of the fine arts, Ernst permitted a new logic to emerge, one at odds with traditional reason. In Ballard's texts, which so clearly derive from Ernst's strategies, it is only the fact of coincidence that is meaningful, the randomness of collision, the cut-ups of a postmodern experience that's already cut up.
Ballard discusses the field of science fiction by providing another collage: 'The subject matter of SF is the subject matter of everyday life: the gleam on refrigerator cabinets, the contours of a wife's or husband's thighs passing the newsreel images on a color TV set, the conjunction of musculature and chromium artifact within an automobile interior, the unique postures of passengers on an airport escalator [...]' ("Fictions" 100). Ballard's language is reminiscent of Situationist rhetoric in its attention to the meaningful structures of "everyday life" and its random wanderings - its drive - through the territories of consumer existence.
A necessary ambivalence pervades these texts that makes them easier to quote than to paraphrase. The increasing compression of Ballard's prose through the 1960s renders it even more resistant to summary, as it moved closer to the condition of the advertisement ('What can Saul Bellow and John Updike do that J. Walter Thompson, the world's largest advertising agency and its greatest producer of fiction, can't do better?' ("Fictions" 99)). To this end, Ballard developed the form of the "condensed novel". 6 As Pringle and James Goddard describe them, 'the narratives are stripped of surplus verbiage and compounded until they are only skeletal representations of what they might otherwise have been' (4). The linear progress of the minimal narrative that remains is further broken by a division into separately headed paragraphs; the temporal and spatial relations between fragments are variant. As did the cut-ups, Ballard's narrational style derives from the collage techniques of the Surrealists: 'The techniques of surrealism have a particular relevance at this moment, when the fictional elements in the world around us are multiplying to the point where it is almost impossible to distinguish between the "real" and the "false" - the terms no longer have any meaning' ("Unconscious" 103). 7
The terrain of the mediascape and the form of the condensed novel were not Ballard's alone. One of the most celebrated works in the SF canon is Pamela Zoline's 1967 New Worlds short story, "The Heat Death of the Universe". Zoline narrates a day in the life of Sarah Boyle, witty and dangerously intelligent, who is preparing her child's birthday party. The story is divided into discrete numbered and labelled sections (a familiar New Worlds trope). Sections on Entropy, Light, Ontology and Dada are interspersed with a catalog of Sarah's activities ('At Lunch Only One Glass of Milk is Spilled'). Zoline evokes both entropic dispersal and cosmic connectedness, as the quotidian experience of a housewife is described in language usually reserved for astronomical phenomena: a fine example of the estranging rhetorics of science fiction. 8 The narrative builds to her inevitable breakdown on the kitchen floor, smashing glassware, scrawling graffiti and throwing eggs. But this is not only about psychological breakdown: through Zoline's complex structures, Sarah Boyle signifies the prevalent, contradictory and mediated inscriptions on women in consumer culture:
Sarah Boyle's blue eyes, how blue? Bluer far and of a different quality than the Nature metaphors which were both engine and fuel to so much of precedant literature. A fine, modern, acid, synthetic blue [...] the deepest, most unbelievable azure of the tiled and mossless interiors of California swimming pools. The chemists in their kitchens cooked, cooled and distilled this blue from thousands of colorless and wonderfully constructed crystals, each one unique and nonpareil; and now that color, hisses, bubbles, burns in Sarah's eyes. (Zoline 24)
In Zoline's story, the authority of scientific discourse is undermined by the commodification of both everyday life and the known universe.
The implosion of meaning in the mediascape, in blip culture, dictates the rise of new literary forms. The "novels" operate as a condensation of the iconography of consumer culture and the compactness of consumerist forms. The traditions of "literature" prevent readers from engaging with the realism of such supposedly "experimental" writing. In the absence of such preconceptions, Ballard argues that people 'would realize that Burroughs' narrative techniques, or my own in their way, would be an immediately recognizable reflection of the way life is actually experienced'. He continues by defining the state of terminal culture and image addiction: 'We live in quantified non-linear terms - we switch on television sets, switch them off half an hour later, speak on the telephone, read magazines, dream and so forth. We don't live our lives in linear terms in the sense that the Victorians did' ("Quotations" 160).
Both the cut-ups of William Burroughs and Ballard's condensed novels continue the collagist traditions of their modernist forebears in the Surrealist, Dadaist and Cubist projects. Given the fullness of that appropriation, it would be false to immediately confer a "postmodern" status upon these writers, and yet the history of postmodern science fiction (and indeed, postmodernism itself) is inconceivable without them. Clearly the writers of cyberpunk, a thoroughly postmodern phenomenon, derive much from Burroughs and Ballard. The shift from modernism to postmodernism is evident in Ballard's recognition that his and Burroughs' techniques are largely mimetic of a profoundly transformed reality. The prejudice against "experimental" writing, which prevents readers from perceiving the mimetic aspects of their prose, has been elided in the more narratively grounded work of the cyberpunks. There, cut-ups and condensations moved from being anti-narrative experimental practices (even within science fiction's own avant-garde) to a phenomenon grounded in lived reality. The notorious first sentence of William Gibson's Neuromancer, for example ('The sky above the port was the color of television turned to a dead channel') describes the reality of "Chiba City", but it also recalls Ernst's collages, filtered through the white-noise sensibilities of electronic culture. Ballard and Burroughs, then, are crucial transitional figures between the psychoanalytic modernism of the Surrealists and the electronic postmodernism of the cyberpunks.
Thus the development of new spectacular forms is a project that dominates the production of recent science fiction, and the compression of Ballard's work will find echoes, not only in cyberpunk, but also in the music video aesthetic of Max Headroom, and the dense layering of panels in Howard Chaykin's comics. Note that Ballard does not necessarily embrace the emergent order of things, and the series of technological disaster novels he has produced reveal a profound suspicion of the new cultural formations. Yet the act of acceptance is paramount: Ballard's protagonists are marked by their acceptance of the altered circumstances of reality: 'In The Drowned World, the hero, Kerans, is the only one to do anything meaningful. His decision to stay, to come to terms with the changes taking place within himself, to understand the logic of his relationship with the shifting biological kingdom [...] is a totally meaningful course of action. The behavior of the other people, which superficially appears to be meaningful - getting the hell out, or draining the lagoons - is totally meaningless' (Goddard and Pringle 33).
This acceptance, as noted, extends to the new forms of the mediascape: the shifting electronic kingdom. There is an acknowledgment, rare in fiction, that this is where we all live.
Before moving to the science fiction works concerned with the control of the media, it is worth taking a brief look at a film that effectively portrays the control by the media and that demonstrates the addictive need for the substitute-reality of the spectacle. Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) presents an alien (David Bowie) whose knowledge and experience of our world is entirely mediated by television. Here the science fiction narrative serves as a metaphor for a less cosmic alien-ation: the British alien adrift in America - another 'world of appearances' (Chris Marker). 9 Roeg's cinematography and mise-en-scene continually stress angularity, reflectivity and prismaticity; the geometry of intersecting light and images; a substantial insubstantiality. Thomas Newton, the alien, watches television (or televisions: six, twelve or more). 10 'Strange thing about television is that it doesn't tell you everything', he muses. 'It shows you everything about life on Earth, but the mysteries remain. Perhaps it's the nature of television'. Guy Debord provides an analysis of Newton's observation: 'The spectacle originates in the loss of the unity of the world, and the gigantic expansion of the modern spectacle expresses the totality of this loss: the abstraction of all specific labor and the general abstraction of the entirety of production are perfectly rendered in the spectacle, whose mode of being concrete is precisely abstraction' (#24). The expression of the loss of unity could only take the form of a massive displacement from sign to sign. There could be no totalising system of reference to ground it in order to engender cohesion and produce concrete meaning.
In The Man Who Fell to Earth, real life is trivialized and made banal. Newton's quest to rescue his family is parodied by a camera commercial: togetherness through picture-taking. The photograph becomes an instant substitute and a surrogate memory. 11 As in advertising, TV at once reveals and hides the lack, providing him with parodic distortions of the family he does not have, the community he does not share, the experiences from which he remains separate. Television serves simply as noise for Newton; the white noise of American culture. The wealthy Newton purchases no extraneous commodities other than the multiple television monitors; as Debord noted, the spectacle is the ultimate commodity, for it contains all the others (#15).
Like the alien figure of Sans Soleil, Newton feels a force which emanates from television, a control which pulls him in. 'Get out of my mind, all of you!' he moans to his wall of screens. 'Stay where you belong'. Television is both pervasive and invasive, evidently serving as a drug; an electronic analogue for the pollution of Newton's body with alcohol. The more Newton engages the world of appearances, the less real his own body, his own appearance, becomes. The spectacle holds the 'monopoly of appearance' (Debord #12), representing the cohesion that is no longer locatable in the real. 'The externality of the spectacle in relation to the active man appears in the fact that his own gestures are no longer his but those of another who represents them to him' (Debord #30). The struggle to resist the spectacle marks the return to alienation from the affectless one-dimensional state so accurately described by Marcuse: the return to a recognition of spectacle as spectacle. The status of the alien thus allows the privilege of alienation, a state that exists beyond (or more accurately before) the acceptance of spectacle.
The paranoid sensibility of Philip K. Dick, in dozens of science fiction novels and stories, explores the alienation that results from seeing through the spectacle. The spectacle pervades Dick's universe as a benign and effective mode of control; the spectacle constitutes the parameters of reality for the citizen. The central characteristic of Dick's protagonists involves their crises of subjectivity; crises which begin when the categories of the real and the rational begin to dissolve their boundaries. In Dick's best work, such a metaphysical dilemma does not simply represent a failure of the individual to map him or herself onto the social realm, but is interwoven with the changes in the physical world, primarily with the rise of spectacle and the expansion of the technologies of reproduction. Jameson has written that, 'in the weaker productions of postmodernism the aesthetic embodiment of such [reproductive processes] often tends to slip back more comfortably into a mere thematic representation of content - into narratives which are about the processes of reproduction, and include movie cameras, video, tape recorders, the whole technology of the production and reproduction of the simulacrum' (79). Despite Jameson's caution, it is nevertheless important to understand and accept the iconographic force with which these objects have become endowed. It is undeniable that, more than any other science fiction writer (including the more recent cyberpunks), Dick's novels and stories are "about" the processes of reproduction and yet, through repetition and variation, the plethora of apparatuses of reproduction and simulation are bestowed with a force and obsessiveness which often transcend the concerns of any particular work. 12 In The Simulacra (1964), a relatively minor novel dating from the period of Dick's highest productivity, the panoply of spectacular simulations informs the novel's tightest structure.
The novel presents a future one-party state that maintains power by dominating the airwaves with light entertainment: while TV watching is entirely voluntary, it is the means by which an increasingly atomized society engages in a form of collective activity, hosted by Nicole, the First Lady:
[Nicole's] face faded, and a sequence showing unnatural, grotesque fish took its place. This is part of the deliberate propaganda line, Duncan realized. An effort to take our minds off Mars and the idea of getting away from the Party - and from her. On the screen, a bulbous-eyed fish gaped at him, and his attention, despite himself, was captured. Jeez, he thought, it is a weird world down there. Nicole, he thought, you've got me trapped. (22)
It is the non-compulsory and hopelessly banal nature of this viewing situation (the opposite of those horrific situations presented in, say, 1984 or A Clockwork Orange) which links it so readily to the society of the spectacle as delineated by Debord. The addiction to the image places the responsibility for viewership on the citizen rather than the state, and masks the centralized manipulation that constructs the citizen's social definition and very existence.
In The Simulacra, the spectacle of the commodity, the advertisement, is no longer restricted to the usual media: 'The commercial, fly-sized, began to buzz out its message as soon as it managed to force entry. "Say! Haven't you sometimes said to yourself, I'll bet other people can see me! And you're puzzled as to what to do about this serious, baffling problem of being conspicuous, especially -" Chic crushed it with his foot' (44). This annoying advertisement is a robot - a simulation of a life form - and these simulations comprise a second category of images which circulate within this future. It is worth noting the spiel of the advertisement, which invokes an anxiety over public appearance, thus contributing to the atomized, and therefore controlled and centralized, conditions of existence. Dick's satire prefigures not only Debord's work, but also the analysis performed by Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man, in which he argues that 'Electronic communication is one means by which the very idea of public life has been put to an end'. Just as Nicole provides a guided tour of the world without requiring the active participation of the viewer, Sennett states: 'The media have vastly increased the store of knowledge social groups have about each other, but have rendered actual contact unnecessary' (282). 13
Entrepreneurs in The Simulacra market 'famnexdo' (family-next- door) units to interplanetary colonists so that they will have neighbors. Another novel by Dick postulates a barren, future Mars where a handful of disillusioned and isolated colonists ingest a drug to enter the 1950s suburban dream-world of Perky Pat and her friends (imagine Barbie and Ken as a role-playing game or virtual reality experience). 14 In another, a corporate mogul of the far future employs a staff to supply him with authentic items from Washington DC, circa 1935; the props of a huge simulacrum which he uses as a retreat: 'There, he blossomed. He restored his flagging biochemical energy and then returned to the present, to the shared, current world which he eminently understood and manipulated but of which he did not psychologically feel himself a native' (Last Year 23). 15 The imploded environment of television serves as an ersatz collectivism, advertisements detail the horror of public existence, and simulations and docile simulacra are everywhere present to mimic the vanished public sphere (Debord proclaimed the moving away of reality into the forms of spectacle, adding that 'the spectacle originates in the loss of unity of the world...' (#29)).
One of Dick's most effective and developed novels, Martian Time-Slip, presents a terrifying portrait of schizophrenic breakdown in an alien and alienating environment. The future Earth of Martian Time-Slip is marked, like the future according to The Simulacra, by massive and monadic cooperative housing structures that reflect the utopian aspirations of urban planning boards and modernist architects. These are the very aspirations which led to the construction of such projects as the Pruitt-Igoe buildings in St. Louis in the mid 1950s. Then, the ideal of urban social cooperation crumbled before the reality of social anonymity and non-existence, as crime and vandalism assumed massive proportions. The result of pragmatic planning from above was the emergence of an anarchism from below. The profoundly uninhabitable buildings were finally dynamited by the city government in 1972, and it is in this moment of explosion, writes Charles Jencks, that the utopianism of modern architecture died (9-10).
One of the novel's central characters is Jack Bohlen, whose occupation as repairman links him to the fragile technocracy which has consolidated some limited power among the trickle of off-world colonists. Bohlen has a history of mental illness, with one serious schizophrenic period in his pre-colony existence. After his relocation to the frontier-like Martian colony, Bohlen is dismayed to learn that Earth's cooperative housing plan is to be expanded to Mars. Looking at architectural drawings, he says, 'It looks like the co-op apartment house I lived in years ago when I had my breakdown'. Manfred, an autistic child, draws his own version of these new housing projects, but his gift for perceiving future events leads him to draw the buildings as ruins or slums. 'At a broken window of the building, Manfred drew a round face with eyes, nose, a turned-down, despairing mouth. Someone within the building, gazing out silently and hopelessly, as if trapped within' (123). In the 1990s, this image is horribly familiar, and it is easy to imagine such a face at a window in Pruitt-Igoe or Southcentral LA.
Bohlen's original breakdown, perhaps connected to this architectural monadism and isolation, led to hallucinations: 'He saw, through the man's skin, his skeleton. It had been wired together, the bones connected with fine copper wire. The organs which had withered away, were replaced by artificial components, kidney, heart, lungs - everything was made of plastic and stainless steel, all working in unison but entirely without authentic life. The man's voice issued from a tape, through an amplifier and speaker system [...] He was not sure what to do; he tried not to stare too hard at the manlike structure before him [...] "Bohlen", the structure said, "are you sick?" ' (69). The psychosis is defined by a slippage of reality, a perception of the world which strips it of its status as real, and constructs it instead as a mechanical simulacrum of reality: a spectacular mimicry of the natural world. A diagnosis of schizophrenia is inevitable, but Dick has begun to suggest the social and material roots of Bohlen's psychotic reaction.
In fact, Dick uses the discourse of science fiction to complicate and even negate the naturalistic discourse of psychologized characterization. In Bohlen's capacity as Martian repairman, he is summoned to a school to recondition a faulty teaching machine. These machines are standardized models of human simulacra: characters such as Kindly Dad, Angry Janitor, and Mr. Whitlock ('a combination of Socrates and Dwight D. Eisenhower') instruct all children in the important and apparently universal social values. The apprehension evidenced by Bohlen while in the presence of these simulacra is couched in the language of spectacle and even a prefiguration of Althusserian interpellation: '[H]e felt repelled by the teaching machines. For the entire Public School was geared to a task which went contrary to his grain: the school was there not to inform or educate, but to mold, and along severely limited lines. It was the link to their inherited culture, and it peddled that culture, in its entirety, to the young. It bent its pupils to it; perpetuation of the culture was the goal, and any special quirks in the children which might lead them in another direction had to be ironed out' (63). In his encounter with the teaching machines, Bohlen is reminded of his schizophrenic perception of an inauthentic humanity - but now only this "psychosis" can adequately provide an understanding of the actual state of things. The mental instability of psychosis has been superseded by the ontological upheavals of a new reality. Here, Bohlen addresses Kindly Dad in the same folksy tone used by this affable simulacrum: 'I know your purpose, Kindly Dad. We're a long way from Home. Millions of miles away. Our connection with our civilization back Home is tenuous. And a lot of folks are mighty scared, Kindly Dad, because with each passing year that link gets weaker. So this Public School was set up to present a fixed milieu to the children born here, an Earthlike environment. For instance, this fireplace. We don't have fireplaces here on Mars; we heat by small atomic furnaces' (73). Bohlen's sickness permits him to perceive the spectacle as spectacle rather than as surrogate reality. In the postmodern, post-alienated future posed by Philip Dick, the movement into a state of alienation is simultaneously both regression and progression; a crucial ambivalence which avoids any reification of the "natural", but which also rejects the unequivocal embracing of the instrumental reason of a new technocratic order. '[T]he spectator feels at home nowhere, because the spectacle is everywhere' (Debord #30).
Like Debord, Dick finds little to celebrate in a social and technological formation in which the real is so ably and readily simulated, yet his work recognises a fundamental contradiction of late capitalism. In the words of economist Ernest Mandel: 'Capitalist automation as the mighty development of both the productive forces of labor and the alienating and destructive forces of commodity and capital thus becomes the quintessence of the antimonies inherent in the capitalist mode of production' (216). While Dick may evidence a profound suspicion of technology, it must be remembered that the technological societies of his fiction are overwhelmingly capitalistic and largely fascistic. It is less technology per se than the mythifying uses to which it is directed by the forces of an instrumental reason that serve as the targets of Dick's satire. Debord has noted, and Dick would surely assent, that 'the spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images' (#4). Once again, the individual's pseudo-need to participate in the spectacle permits the real political structure to exist autonomously, behind the "screen" of a rational order which, in fact, only exists in spectacular form.
Dick constructs a decentered narrative structure wherein multiple characters interact in a futile quest to fix reality, and therefore themselves, in place. In The Simulacra, the psychoses and aspirations of the more than one dozen integral characters form a network within which the central action of state takeover is subsumed. Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, in his thesis on the writings of Philip Dick, has referred to this 'polyphonic narrative structure that employs five to ten privileged point-of-view characters': 'Almost from the beginning Dick's works contained the reality breakdowns I have defined, and so in that sense Dick's subject was always ontological [...] But when six or eight characters at different levels of the class system of the fictional worlds are portrayed, employing and working for each other, in control or in rebellion, then the narrative is necessarily political, no matter what miraculous reality breakdown is impinging on them all' (90). Whether or not one accepts that this 'necessarily' defines fiction as political, Robinson is firmly correct with regard to Dick's novels.
This narrational tactic first reflects the domination of the linear and rational order which governs the characters' lives, but it finally challenges that very rationality. Dick focalises the action through characters who occupy both the inside and the outside of the government power structure, such as Duncan, who watches the image of Nicole, and Nicole, who is actually an actress hired to play this "ageless" First Lady (and whose status is thus that of an image of an image). The Geheimnistrager (bearers of the secret) are ostensibly opposed to the Befelhaltrager (mere carry-outers of instructions), but the narrative finally deconstructs this opposition: the focalization through characters at all socio-political strata finally demonstrates that information is partial at all levels. A totalising perspective is impossible; control eludes even the controllers.
The reader of The Simulacra is exposed to the neologistic excess which characterises the science fiction text. The first pages, frequently the most defamiliarising in any SF novel, introduce a pattern of acronyms (EME), abbreviations (Art-Cor), and new products (Ampek F-a2) which, in their abundance, render the text less readable. Each condensed form or typographical anomaly opens a hermeneutic gap while emphasising the signifier's sign-function. These terms cannot be read through, for the unfamiliarity they engender is precisely their purpose. They are never fully clarified or translated for the reader, who must either infer their meanings or accept the terms as signs of difference - that is, signs of a future that differs from the reader's own present. In The Simulacra, the "reading protocols" of science fiction are not deployed with the gleeful abandon of such contemporaries as William Burroughs or Alfred Bester; nevertheless, the technologies of simulation and reality-production in Dick's diegesis have a real analogue in the written and spoken languages which comprise the reader's reality, a position which his language and narrative structures are constantly in the process of demonstrating. "Jeez", the reader might remark while staring at the page, "it is a weird world down there". Unlike Nicole, however, Dick will not allow the possibility of the spectacle as pseudo-escape; it is postulated instead as a problematic and omnipresent mediation.
Having elaborated the radical aspects of Dick's project, his limitations must also be acknowledged. Some of these are simply a function of the business for which he labored. Dick wrote prolifically in an industry which paid a flat rate for each delivered novel - quantity, and not quality, determined the shape of his output. Many works, even from his most successful periods, bear the marks of their commodity status: some novels are carelessly cobbled-together rewrites of earlier novellas, others are clearly first-draft efforts and, most notoriously, one novel was written to accompany a title being pushed by Dick's publisher. Additionally, despite recoveries in individual works, Dick's later writings (from about 1966 onward) are increasingly grounded in an elaborate theological framework (which Dick referred to as his Exegesis), and feature a much-reduced cast of characters. Robinson makes a distinction between Dick's early and later works, and argues that the shift occurs 'not in what Dick wrote about, but in how he structured what he wrote about': 'In these later stripped-down narrative schemes there are not enough private individual concerns clashing to form larger political narratives, and very often the private concerns of the single protagonist have to do with the basic nature of reality' (90). With a reduced emphasis on the broader social formations through which "reality" gains meaning, works such as VALIS (1981) are, to my mind, less compelling, and surely less relevant.
In works such as those analyzed here, though, the value of Philip Dick's writing becomes evident. The Simulacra is not simply a "mere thematic representation" of new reproductive technologies. By producing a narrative labyrinth around the problem of a politically constructed reality, Dick challenges the spectacle by foregrounding the quest for elusive meaning. Without any significant departure from the rhetoric or form of the science fiction novel, The Simulacra displays an abundance of reproductive technologies within a decentered and dispersed narrative structure. Ubik (1970) pushes the instabilities further, producing an hallucinatory tour de force that approaches the technological paranoia of Pynchon, Burroughs or Vonnegut. The disorientation of the reader in Dick's diegesis must confront that of the characters, but without the aid of Nicole (or a shot of Ubik) to provide a reassuring guidance through the resonating unrealities of a society comprised almost solely of the spectacle.
An effective and original engagement with spectacular culture is represented by American Flagg!, a comic book written and illustrated by Howard Chaykin. 16 In Chaykin's future, the government has been replaced by the Plex (a government cum communications network cum corporate power) which has provided elaborate shopping malls (Plexmalls) and vid-programming to the beleagured urban areas. From Mars to Chicago comes Reuben Flagg, ex-Plex vid-star, new Plexus Ranger, eager to see the America where his parents were raised. His experience is quickly disillusioning, as he witnesses the sellout of American values to the corruptive commercialism of the Plex. Flagg gains control of a pirate vid-station, an alternative to the Plex programming, which he intends to use towards nothing less than the moral and political overhaul of his adopted world and country.
The coalescence of government and media is handled with particular wit in American Flagg! The ultimate function of the Plex on Earth is simply to acquire capital, partly through selling the assets of the country (including the country itself) to the highest bidders. Because the populace must be kept docile and cooperative, the Plex provides a government, or at least its simulacrum. The malls and entertainment that it provides are spectacular formations which foster the illusion of the re-institution of a governing power - their very existence promises control, stability and containment. As Debord wrote, 'The spectacle is the material construction of the religious illusion' (#20). The world of the Plex exists as undiluted spectacle with no backing reality: the Plex is a floating signifier. Chaykin deliberately grants the Plex only the vaguest status; the reader can be no more certain of its meaning than the citizens of its future (who suspect it to be anything from the Mafia to the telephone company). The literal displacement of the government from Earth to Mars further demonstrates that "everything that was lived directly" will continue to "move away" into a state of representation and simulation. The state is replaced by its own simulacrum and the population barely notices.
The media are used by the Plex as a direct locus of social control. Urban riots are encouraged by the Plex for their entertainment value: '"The Plex supplies 'em with conventional weapons, vidunits and American Plexpress cards. They know the rules - no aircraft, no nukes, no combat in commercial zones and, of course, no suburban adventurism".' In return, the Plex gets 'the highest rated vidshow on three planets. The Plex makes a fortune in ad revenues and these guys get to be on TV. Fair exchange'. Even the anti-social actions of the rioters are appropriated in the calculating interests of a commercial rationality, as the population is served the bread and circuses of spectacular reality: the most popular program is "Bob Violence " - ('When you're threatened by mob violence, Bob Violence', the ads proclaim). Patrick Brantlinger has written that: 'From its cultural beginnings in the late 1940s, television has been accused more often - and from more ideological perspectives - of causing cultural and political decadence than has any other communications medium. Whatever it broadcasts is apt to be interpreted as antithetical to high culture. It appears to be a sort of anti-classical apparatus for automatic barbarization' (251). The description of a process of 'automatic barbarization' seems particularly apt in describing the world of American Flagg!, although Chaykin never exempts his own discourse from the lowbrow pleasures of spectacular textuality.
Flagg's discovery that the Plex might function as something other than a purely benign force is accidental: he alone is capable of consciously perceiving the subliminal commands encoded onto the images of "Bob Violence". The effect of the subliminals is to provoke gogang riots and thereby force a state of permanent crisis. The Plex strategy recalls Nova Express, where the Intolerable Kid is up to his tricks: 'And he breaks out all the ugliest pictures in the image bank and puts it out on the subliminal so one crisis piles up after the other right on schedule' (Nova 18). Chaykin's satirical technique is to exaggerate the effects of the media. "Bob Violence", like the underground broadcast of "Videodrome" (from the film of the same name), represents a nadir in public entertainment - as someone remarks of "Videodrome", it's 'a scum show'. While it commands a massive viewership, the decision to watch remains voluntary. The subliminal commands embedded in both programs only augment the already existing powers of suggestion which pertain to the mass media. "Bob Violence" is hyperbolically violent entertainment; the explicit sadism of the television show "Videodrome" (in the 1982 David Cronenberg film of that name) encourages pornographic fantasies: in each case, the content of the television program already engenders a response that is merely augmented, translated into physical activity, by the addition of a subliminal transmission.
Flagg himself, as the former star of "Mark Thrust: Sexus Ranger" ("The provocative adventures of a fearless vice cop walking the streets of an unnamed, untamed and sexually-transmitted-disease-ridden sector of a great urban metroplex"), is no stranger to the phenomenon of the spectacle, and it is in fact the technological advancement of the forms of spectacle that accounts for his presence as a Ranger: he has been replaced by a "tromplographic" simulation (as in trompe l'oeil ). "I get cancelled," he complains, "but the show goes on." Flagg functions as a hero in several ways. Like many a comic book hero before him, Flagg possesses a secret "super-power", yet his is neither a function of strength nor speed, but of perception: he perceives the subliminal messages; his is the power to decode signs. Like other heroes, Flagg also possesses a secret fortress: but his is a pirate video station rather than a crime lab (Batman) or private fortress (Superman). Reuben Flagg is thus positioned within the society of the spectacle in three distinct ways: as victim (the "Mark Thrust" simulation), as decoder/mythologist (his ability to see the spectacle as spectacle), and as controller/producer (owner-operator of station Q-USA). Chaykin's achievement here is to have preserved the genre of the superhero comic book while constructing a hero for these postmodern times (Chaykin's Time2 features a newspaper called "The Postmodern Times").
The language of the spectacle infects everyday discourse in the world of American Flagg! Products are referred to by their brand names, such as Mananacillin TM , the day-after contraceptive and antibiotic, or Nachtmacher TM , a blackout-producing riot control device. Chaykin even includes the "TM" superscript to indicate the trademarks, signs of the corporate ownership of language. The superscript also represents an important inclusion of non-phonetic writing, which leads to a deliberate confusion in the text between spoken and written discourses. Video screens are ubiquitous, located even in public spaces, and Chaykin frequently includes this transmitted speech in dialogue sequences. As in White Noise, the effect is of constant chatter and an ongoing process of randomization and dislocation, the cut-up as lived postmodern experience.
In a number of 1980s comic books, the syntagmatic progression of panels, inflected by cinematic storytelling techniques, was partially supplanted by a synchronic display of shapes and forms, heavily influenced by the graphic arts. As Howard Chaykin has continually demonstrated, the comic book is a medium uniquely suited to the depiction of spectacular society. The conjunction of image, color, text and typography is exploited with continual variation in his work. In another series, the more openly experimental Time 2, Chaykin incorporates commercial trademarks, photographs, hand-lettering, typeset lettering, Hebraic calligraphy, varying panel sizes and page layouts, as well as overlapping and overlaid illustrations (to catalogue only some of his materials). In Flagg! and especially Time 2, the characters are literally surrounded by a plethora of signs. The setting of the latter work is no accident: Times Square has long been famed for its obtruding and massive signs. Chaykin's unorthodox pictorials establish a distance from the standard syntagmatic organization of panels on the page, while the deployment of texts as visual objects replaces the traditional emphasis on phonetic language (what Robert Smithson has called 'language to be looked at' (104)). Synchrony replaces diachrony as the sign (image and text) is stripped of its transparency and becomes a material form: a commodity. 17
The opening of Flagg! exemplifies Chaykin's approach. The saga begins as the Mars-Luna shuttle bringing Flagg to his new station in Chicago requests landing instructions. As the shuttle makes its approach, the electronic "air" is shown to be filled with violent or sexually explicit vid-material, as well as political broadcasts, game shows, advertisements, computer readouts and graphic displays. Space is hardly empty, it is instead filled with all the signs and signals of the social system. Chaykin makes this even more evident in a more recently added prologue, as the shuttle accidentally plows into a communications satellite. The prologue continues with a channel by channel overview of vid-programming which restores a diachronic progression, but one which makes no sense (recalling Burroughs' adage that 'TV is a real cut-up' (Mottram 65)). The reader is introduced to the culture via the media.
The layout of the title page, as the shuttle makes its final approach to Chicago, further emphasizes this future America's full incorporation into its own spectacular constructions. The page demolishes the clear demarcation of space into separate panels in favor of an overlapping and largely synchronic display, in an inspired foregrounding of the white noise which prevails in contemporary culture. The ability of the comic book format to present both words and images in iconic form allows Chaykin to render this noise physically and tangibly, filling the air in a spatial, as well as an electronic, sense. The reader of American Flagg! must find an orientation within this newly opened space of the page. Such a conception of space corresponds to the dominant characteristics of postmodern architecture, as elaborated by Charles Jencks, in its celebration of hybrid (rather than univocal) expression, complexity (rather than linearity), eclecticism (rather than an historicized homogeneity) and 'variable space with surprises' (32).
The architectural model retains its relevance when considering the existence of the Plexmall, a building which deaccentuates its entrances in favor of its monadic interior. The Plexmall is not a building to enter or exit so much as it is one to be already in. The mall, even in our own time, represents the implosion of the public space of the village green or town center; this new unit 'aspires to being a total space, a complete world, a kind of miniature city', as Jameson writes in his famed analysis of the Bonaventura Hotel. Therefore, it 'ought not to have entrances at all, since the entryway is always the seam that links the building to the rest of the city that surrounds it: for it does not wish to be a part of the city, but rather its equivalent and replacement or substitute' (81). The mall can serve as metaphor to the implosive concentration of images and text in American Flagg! For Jameson, the elaborate postmodern "hyperspace" represents the transcendence of the individual's capacity to comprehend the surrounding territory: the inability to get one's bearings thus becomes a further indicator of the crises of subjectivity and rationality which obtain within postmodern culture (83). What Venturi and Portman have achieved in architecture is analogous to Chaykin's accomplishment in American Flagg! and Time 2: the images presented to the reader initiate the same cartographic failure that Jameson observed.
The postmodern paradigm originally developed by Jencks for categorising architectural styles has clearly had a broader impact. There are real affinities between Jencks' schema and the medium of video, with its imploded space, hybridization, and the absolute proliferation of signs and symbols. Venturi has discussed the effectiveness of the designs along the Las Vegas Strip, where the clarity of signs ensures 'comprehension at high speeds' (35). So it is with television and its images that must hold the viewer who may, at any moment, zoom off to other channels. There is no beginning and no end; just the flow of signs. As J. Hoberman wrote, 'Movies are events: TV is a continuum that, like the Blob, oozes out in all directions' (8). (The Blob...the very incarnation of implosion...)
Chaykin's suggestion of an almost entirely televisual reality can recall the work, both early and late, of artist Nam June Paik. The gardens, aquariums and articles of clothing which Paik constructed around the simulacrum/object of the television are easily linked to the plethora of simulations in science fiction: in John Shirley's Eclipse, garments are woven of cathode-ray filaments, and video images flash across bodies in a random, ever-changing array. 18 'As collage technic replaced oil paint', Paik wrote in a now-famous proclamation, 'the cathode ray tube will replace the canvas' (11). In its inherent capacity to generate unpredictable, random sets of images, television becomes the medium for a new era, an era of information bombardment or "cyberblitz". 19 Fields of multiple screen installations enhanced randomization through the collision of images in space as well as time. As a character in The Watchmen, a comic book by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, observes, multi-screen viewing is the equivalent of William Burroughs' cut-ups as a randomising technique which foregrounds and estranges the white noise of the imploded society. 20 Art must privilege the random to reveal its existence and thereby defamiliarize the alienating effects of blip culture.
Paik's movement into videotape production was inevitable. To operate within the object is to acknowledge the implosive force which television represents. His tapes are simulacra of television, as is Chaykin's work, blending synthesized effects, talking heads, overlapping images, textual overlays and a staggering sensation of total flow, combined to represent TV as a random but all-inclusive process of program switching and channel-hopping. The works operate 'in such an incredibly dense manner that one is subliminally bombarded by information in rhythmically shifting time perspectives, leaving one with a feeling of video exhaustion: information overload as the battle fatigue of the future' (Ross, 109).
In American Flagg! and Time 2, H<+>oward Chaykin has replaced the model of cinema in comic book narrative style with the more "terminal" model of video. Like comics, video incorporates a flow of images of varying shapes and sizes (within the frame of the picture tube, just as comics are bounded by the page), the images are often overlapping, text frequently shares space with the image, and text (in the form of logos, for example) functions as a physical and iconic element, as well as a symbolic one. Television is the aesthetic model for the postmodern era, and Chaykin's inclusion of that aesthetic reveals new possibilities and signals a new importance for the medium of comics.
In American Flagg!, an involvement with spectacle thus operates narratively and narrationally. A society in which images become a primary mode of devaluing the human and the social is depicted through the deployment of images which emphasize their own spectacular nature. The evacuation of the real is represented by a spatial construction which fails to provide the reader with a clearly delineated and rational sequence to follow. The relation between image and control, a relation so clearly posited within the diegesis, is emphasized through strategies of deliberate incoherence and materiality. The analysis of mass culture, coupled with Chaykin's gift for nomenclature and the modern idiom, results in a work of remarkable sophistication. Flagg! effects a deconstruction of a culture profoundly engaged with images; a culture which allows images to construct a whole and reassuring - but entirely false - image of itself.
I've always been frustrated by genre studies which arbitrarily restrict themselves to one medium: the western film, the crime novel, the pastoral painting. I know someone who can tell you everything about historical narrative in cinema, but has no idea whether these observations work for historical fiction. In one sense, a strictly academic sense, it doesn't really matter - but wouldn't you want to know? Have you discovered something about historical narrative, or only the historical narrative film? Why isn't this a relevant question?
When I began thinking about "postmodern science fiction", cyberpunk did not quite exist. There was no evident set of genre conventions to guide the examination of individual works. And yet when one looked at the few films that seemed to occupy some common ground (TRON, Blade Runner, Videodrome), and put them up against a set of fictions from the last twenty years (Philip Dick, J.G. Ballard, William Gibson's short stories) and then looked at some contemporaneous comics material by Howard Chaykin, Moebius, Alan Moore and others, a powerful intertextuality emerged. Add a soundtrack by DEVO or Sonic Youth or George Clinton or Skinny Puppy and things got even funkier. These texts addressed each other, built upon themselves and even shared personnel - Chaykin did book illustration and film design, as did Moebius; a Phil Dick novel was the basis of Blade Runner, which influenced Gibson's Neuromancer, which gave us Sonic Youth's 'The Sprawl' (let's not think about Billy Idol's Cyberpunk album). If you examined only one medium then there wasn't much to explore, but as soon as the media were permitted to commingle, a paradigm, a zeitgeist, practically a whole goddamned Weltanschaunng revealed itself.
So underlying Terminal Identity is an attack on the reductive quality of genre study within the academy. Of course, that requires reading a few novels and broadening one's perspective - fortunately I read a lot of comics as a child (ok, ok, I still read 'em). The result, however, is to perhaps discover new and relevant genre connections; it is at least to demonstrate the complexity of intertextual references within popular, "mass", culture.
Terminal Identity was never intended to be encyclopedic, although it might seem that way. From the beginning, I was only interested in works that "I" considered to be "interesting". These were stories, films and comics that I thought were innovative, original (or at least an original synthesis), and enlightening (loaded terms, all, but what the hell - it was my book). The book makes no distinction between high, popular or experimental art - if it turned me on, if its examination seemed valuable to my thesis, it's in there. I quickly discovered that the canonized critical texts were going to be of limited value - an Althusserian reading of Blade Runner might discern its interpellation of "the subject" of ideology, but it was entirely useless in discovering just what these works meant to me. Reductive analyses of SF proliferate - they're fun, and easy too! - but I wanted to consider the value of the work within electronic culture.
We see already, then, what I hoped would be a productive confusion between the description of a generalized set of cultural phenomena which I grouped under the heading of "postmodern science fiction", and a set of close analyses of texts that I, as postmodern-science-fiction-tastemaker, deemed worthy of attention. I say "productive" confusion because I felt (and continue to feel) that both broadly cultural and narrowly textual analyses have merit, whether or not they are entirely reconcilable. Cinema studies, at its best, has privileged the close analysis of cinematic texts, but its theoretical wing has tended to slight key connections between film and other phenomena. The historical branch of the field has been heroically reconnecting cinema to the larger social matrix, but often to the exclusion of any textual analysis. A synthesis of these approaches is absolutely not essential, but it does inform the work of some of our best practitioners, including Hansen, Gunning, Elsaesser and Michelson. Now, if cinema studies has tended to stay too close to the canonical trees, then cultural studies has provided a much clearer sense of the forest. Unfortunately, however, American cultural analysts exist in a state of denial - they've become so terrified of the notion of "art", not to mention "aesthetic experience" of any kind, that they don't know what to do with the trees (other than piss on 'em, I suppose). So in writing Terminal Identity, I was trying to navigate between what I saw as the strengths and weaknesses of cinema studies on the one side and cultural studies on the other in order to recognize "popular culture" as a dynamic, artistically valid field of experience or inquiry.
[As usual, if I am caught or captured, I will disavow all knowledge of these opinions.]
1. See the texts by Mander and Winn; also see Johnson and Friendly. A more theorized polemic can be found in Horkheimer and Adorno. Dziga Vertov's writings on the cinema are also relevant in their emphasis on spectacle as opiate.
2. Brantlinger's Bread and Circuses is an excellent examination of the metaphor of cultural "barbarism". See especially Chapter 8, "Television: Spectacularity vs. McLuhanism".
3. See Ballard's "Time, Memory and Inner Space" for example.
4. The Space Age was frequently perceived from the perspective of those on the ground. See, for example, "Gravity", by Harvey Jacobs, or "The Dead Astronaut", by Ballard.
5. Moorcock's "Jerry Cornelius" stories and novels took place in a similar landscape, as New Worlds writer Brian Aldiss - not a Ballard fan - has noted: "In a sense it was the same contemporary world coldly glimpsed in Ballard's work, but a world in which warm pastiche breathed, a world with far greater animation and personality. [...] The novels themselves, cluttered with images and objects - vibrators, Sikorsky helicopters, Mars bars among them - are deliberately less meaningful. Of course this was a kind of fictional in-joke amongst the writers of New Worlds: consequently, a comic book quality often pervades much of the writing" (303).
6. These have been collected under the title The Atrocity Exhibition. The original title was Love and Napalm: Export USA, a title which evokes Godard, whose mid-60s fascination with consumer culture and narrative experimentation is well known.
7. See Chapters 4 and 5 of Terminal Identity for more on science fiction and Surrealism.
8. The story also anticipates the use of entropy as a structuring metaphor in Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (Pynchon had already used entropy as an extensive metaphor in "Entropy" as well as in The Crying of Lot 49). Zoline's story also intersects in fascinating ways with Chantal Akerman's massive film of domestic isolation and breakdown, Jeanne Dielmann, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975).The Akerman film, for example, emphasises extremely long takes and sequence shots, giving each shot a discrete existence which is reminiscent of Zoline's numbered paragraphs. The emphasis on household chores in Jeanne Dielmann is anticipated in "The Heat Death of the Universe".
9. The film is thus only an apparent reversal of Marker's 1982 documentary, Sans Soleil. In the later, somewhat more autocritical film, science fiction is invoked more explicitly as a metaphor than it is in Roeg's commercial release of 1976.
10. The images include movies, war footage, mating animals - another similarity to Marker's film - and, in what is surely a reflexive joke on Bowie's pop-star status - an Elvis Presley movie.
11. See Bruno for more on this Barthesian view of the photograph.
12. I do not want to suggest that Jameson is unsympathetic to Dick. In fact, Jameson has produced effective analyses of Dick's work: see his "After Armageddon: Character Systems in Dr. Bloodmoney", 279-287.
13. Sennett views this phenomenon as an impersonal consequence of the "rationality" of capitalist development, while Dick's pervasive paranoia attributes the decline of public existence to a heinous government/technocratic conspiracy.
14. See The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch .
15. Jameson refers to this work in Postmodernism (118).
16. Howard Chaykin, American Flagg!. (Evanston, Ill.: First Comics, 1983). The original three issue story of the series was reprinted in a single volume entitled Hard Times in 1985.
17. For an extensive analysis of the underlying importance of such a use of language, see Coward and Ellis. See also Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology .
18. 'A cartoon character flew across the waitress' stomach [...] to be replaced instantly by a car crashing head-on into another, both bursting into flames. "Cars are crashing in your stomach", Purchase told her.' (Shirley Eclipse 76).
19. Baudrillard, "Design and Environment, or How Political Economy Escalates into Cyberblitz".
20. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, The Watchmen , Chapter XI, 1. The same is true of the collision of panels in comics, making the statement autoreferential.
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