Tag Archives: Futurity

Kim Stanley Robinson: 2312

2312 Cover Kim Stanley RobinsonI gave up on literary science fiction when I was in eighth grade. That year I read Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two and Childhood’s End, and found that both left me cold. I was underwhelmed by what struck me as a blithe Prometheanism on Clarke’s part. At the end of 2010, for instance, Jupiter becomes our system’s second sun. The narrator tell us this was welcomed by “farmers, mayors, police, seamen, and all those engaged in outdoor activities” while it was hated by “lovers, criminals, naturalists, and astronomers” (1984 : 326f). The ecological catastrophe that unfolds is briefly glossed over until the narrator arrives at a paean to mankind’s Faustian drive.

As problematic as Clarke’s triumphalism may be, it is indicative of one of the deeply political nature of the science fiction genre. This is hardly an epiphany – even as I was sick of Clarke, I remain a fan of the never politically dubious Star Trek.  I picked up Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2012 novel 2312 because I was curious to see how the novel deals with the ethics of terraforming other planets in the solar system, life in artificially produced space environments, and Earth after the consequences of our species’ mistreatment of the planet have been visited upon us.

The plot of the novel follows Swan Er Hong as she begins pursuing an investigation left open by her recently deceased grandmother, which turns out to be into a “terrorist” scheme involving artificial intelligence. The situates the readership as occupying a time in a much more distant future, looking back on a crucial historical moment in the solar system. The chapters are punctuated by bits of material that do most of the labor of world building – instructions for terraforming celestial bodies, summaries of future historical debates on periodizing the era of the novel’s story, a series of lists that might be poetry. We see Earth dealing with the consequences of global warming: politically fractured, impoverished, materially dependent on the off worlds. New York City has been flooded, so the residents have fled to up into the skyscrapers and Manhattan has come to resemble Venice.

The core question that runs through the novel regards repetition: is the universe one of eternal return? To what extent is the repetition of days subverted by even small deviations? And so Earth biomes are reproduced in celestial bodies, even as those biomes have long since been destroyed on Earth. To escape the repetition, the people in space have their bodies modified: Swan has a cluster of avian brain cells that allow her to sing bird songs, other characters have had reproductive organs of both sexes involved so that copulation is an act of reciprocal penetration. Some people on impoverished Earth, unable to have their own bodies modified, see the class difference manifesting itself in speciation, and have suggested classifying their non-terrestrial counterparts as  Homo sapiens celestis.

Repetition and iterability are ultimately the core issues at stake in 2312, driving the novel’s political reflections. The production of artificial intelligence in the shape of humans raises a familiar question from other science fiction, that is, the question of extending moral consideration to a constructed thing that may or may not be sentient. But it extends to the environmental politics at work in the novel as well. In a key reversal, earth animals that had previously survived only in biomes reproduced in outer space are airlifted into their former habitats on Earth as a “rewilding.” Swan, and perhaps the novel itself, celebrates this as a kind of ecological redemption, brought about by the protagonist’s own sense of Prometheanism. But unlike Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010, we also learn that the people of Earth do not universally share in the enthusiasm, and the narrator gives us a strong hint that the reproduction of the Earth’s past condition on the present planet is not without friction, much of which stems from the class tensions between the on- and the off-worlders.

Erderwärmung und Gerechtigkeit

Die WDR-Sendung “Das philosophische Radio” hat letzte Woche eine Sendung mit dem Philosophen Lukas Meyer ausgestrahlt unter dem Titel “Ist der Klimawandel ein Gerechtigkeitsproblem?” Kurze Antwort: ja. Die Sendung ist eine Stunde lang, aber das Anhören lohnt sich. Im Folgenden einige Gedanken zum Gespräch, aber zuerst kann ich “Das philosophische Radio” nicht hoch genug empfehlen. Einerseits bietet es jede Woche eine Gelegenheit, vom eigenen philosophischen Tellerrand hinauszublicken. Andererseits ist es immer interessant (und erfreulich) zu hören, wie Akademiker auf die Fragen von Laien eingehen. Und Jürgen Wiebekes Moderation ist immer pointiert und gut informiert.

Das Gespräch letzte Woche hat das Thema “Klimawandel und Gerechtigkeit” innerhalb einer zukunftsorientierten Ethik verstanden, und so legitim das sein mag, war es auch ein Dokument des begrenzten Rahmens, in dem Diskussion über Erderwärmung stattfinden. Die Anfangsmoderation hat einen zum Thema passenden Ton angeschlagen: “Es ist ungefähr so, als ob es fünf vor zwölf ist und wir werfen die Uhr weg.” Die Diskussion über “Gerechtigkeit” kreiste um Themen wie Verzicht, Gleichverteilung, und Konsum, aber der Fluchtpunkt des Gesprächs war die Zukunft und unsere Pflichten gegen zukünftige Menschen. Ein würdiges Thema, das man in anderen Sendungen aufgegriffen hat. Aber beim Anhören hätte ich gern mehr über die Erderwärmung als real existierendes Phänomen unserer Gegenwart gehört.

Meine Frage ist, ob eine Zukunftsethik uns wirklich einen festen Boden für ein ethisches Programm im Zeitalter des Anthropozäns bietet? Einerseits können und wollen wir die Frage der Zukunft nicht loswerden, denn die Umsetzung eines Programms für eine bessere Wirklichkeit geht von der Antwort auf die Frage aus, wie wir in der Gegenwart handeln wollen, um eine mögliche Zukunft zu gestalten. Meine Skepsis kommt aber von zwei Punkten. Das erste ist, “Zukunft” ist ein sehr missbrauchter Begriff. In Wahljahren in den USA wenigstens wird die Zukunft oft als eine geschlossene kommende Wirklichkeit behandelt. Das heißt, die Zukunft ist etwas festes wie ein Gebäude, wir sind auf dem Weg dorthin, aber die Politik der Opposition gefährdet sie gewiss. Aber die Erderwärmung macht die Zukunft radikal offen: wie schlimm wird sie sein? Wer wird am stärksten betroffen? Was und wieviel von unserer jetzigen Gesellschaftsstruktur wird sich überhaupt bewahren können?

Der zweite Punkt ist, dass der Klimawandel als Folge einer anthropogenen Erderwärmung gar kein Zukunftsproblem ist, sondern die Katastrophe ist da. Die Sahara dringt vor. Wildbrände haben vor kurzem wieder Vororte von San Diego bedroht. Gletscherschwund in der Westantarktis.

Es ist also nicht fünf vor zwölf, sondern eins nach. Unsere Diskussion über Ökogerechtigkeit kann und soll mit der Gegenwart ansetzen.

Ökogerechtigkeit war das, was mir in dem Gespräch gefehlt hat. In der Diskussion hat man sehr viel über Bahn vs Auto fahren, ob man weit weg in den Urlaub fliegen soll, und Ähnliches aus einem linksliberalen Blickfeld. Aber auch wenn man sich auf den Klimawandel beschränkt und andere verwandte Fragen wie Recht auf die Stadt usw. beiseite lässt, stecken größere Fragen als Bahn oder Auto hinter dem Klimawandel. Meyer nähert sich diese größeren Themen an, als er bei der Diskussion über Urlaub auf Mallorca erwähnt, dass wir unsere Gesellschaft vielleicht so organisieren könnte, dass wir nicht einmal sowas wie “Urlaub” nötig hätten.

Theodor Fontane and the Tachyonic Antitelephone

Early in Fontane’s novel Der Stechlin Dubslav and Gundermann are engaged in a discussion of the telegraph. I was revisiting this passage and thinking about it in connection with issues of relativity and causality in Robert Musil’s novel Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften.

The conversation begins with Dubslav commenting that the brevity mandated by the form of the telegram has eroded language.

Kürze soll eine Tugend sein, aber sich kurz fassen heißt meistens auch, sich grob fassen. (GBA-EW 17 : 28)

Brevity’s supposed to be a virtue, but saying things briefly usually means saying them coarsely. (CHE 17)

Gundermann, a reactionary bourgeois who makes a living turning Brandenburg’s trees into planks for Berlin’s hard wood floors, seizes on these remarks to take a pot shot at the Social Democrats. The erosion of language is a “Zeichen der Zeit” (“sign of the times”) and “Wasser auf die Mühlen der Sozialdemokratie” (GBA-EW 17 : 28-29) “water on the mills of the social democrats”; CHE 17). Dubslav reverses himself in the face of Gundermann, and balances his criticism of the telegraph with something that he finds more praiseworthy about the technology.

Schließlich ist es doch was Großes, diese Naturwissenschaften, dieser elektrische Strom, tipp, tipp, tipp, und wenn uns daran läge (aber uns liegt nichts daran), so könnten wir den Kaiser von China wissen lassen, daß wir hier versammelt sind und seiner gedacht haben. Und dabei diese merkwürdigen Verschiebungen in Zeit und Stunde. Beinahe komisch. Als Anno siebzig die Pariser Septemberrevolution ausbrach, wußte man’s in Amerika drüben um ein paar Stunden früher, als die Revolution überhaupt da war. (GBA-EW 17 : 29)

When you get right down to it though, it really is a marvelous thing, this science business, this electric current. Tap, tap, tap and if we had a mind to (even though we don’t), why we could let the Emperor of China know we’ve gotten together here and were thinking about him. And then all these odd mix-ups in time and hours. Almost comical. When the September Revolution broke out back in seventy in Paris, they knew about it over there in America a couple of hours before there even was a revolution. (CHE 18)

Dubslav’s complaint about the telegraph was concerned with its effects on language. He speaks in favor of a notion of industrial progress, but his admiration for the sciences and technological innovation is less about technology as such and more about the telegraph’s effect on spacetime. He imagines the telegraph as a tachyonic antitelephone, a hypothetical device capable of sending information faster than light thereby causing a paradox of causality. The compression of space and time with modern technology is something that crops up again and again in the literature of the late nineteenth century, one sees it especially in the way that train travel is described. The experience of the accelerating train in many of Raabe’s texts, for instance, is often a metaphor for the experience of time in modernity. But the paradox of causality Dubslav describes is different. It is not merely that “the time is out of joint,” as Hamlet famously put it, but that it is out of joint to the extent that temporal relations are suddenly reversed.

The connections between global and local that the telegraph makes possible do more than simply establish a parallel between the lake and communication technology, rather the telegraph reproduces technologically the mythic properties ascribed to the lake (i.e. the fact that it responds physically to seismic activity anywhere on the planet). Dubslav’s example of the news of revolution echoes the revolutionary symbolism of the lake. The possibility of sending a telegram to the emperor of China more explicitly articulates the imperial side of the openness to the world that Melusine espouses. The lake, after all, connects to Java, “mit Java telephoniert” (GBA-EW 17 : 64; “has a telephone line direct to Java,” CHE 43). Both raise the specters of German colonial presence in Qingdao and New Guinea. The empire functions here as Edward Said argues it does elsewhere in nineteenth century literature, “as a codified, if only marginally visible, presence in fiction” (63), and I would add, is another important component of the novel’s geographic imagination.1 The telegraph, in short, is a physical manifestation of global networks of domination and a reproduction of the lake’s chthonic global connections.

The tachyonic antitelephone was the most intriguing discovery of this passage. Einstein’s theory of relativity was still eight years away or so when Stechlin appeared in book form. A common (mis)perception of German realism holds that the literature of this time did not rise up to the status of “world literature” that one finds in the “great” novels of England, France, or Russia in the latter half of the nineteenth century, although Fontane is in this regards supposedly the great exception. But Fontane is not the only German author of this period with the sensitivity and perceptiveness to anticipate, say, a tachyonic antitelephone.

 

1Said also draws the comparison of the presence of empire to the presence of laborers. “To cite another intriguing analogue, imperial possessions are as usefully there, anonymous and collective, as the outcast populations . . . of transient workers, part-time employees, season artisans; their existence always counts, though their names and identities do not, they are profitable without being fully there” (63-64). The analogy might also be applied to the notably marginal – albeit no less significant – absence of the glass workers at Globsow.

HSBC on the Future

Natural futures, courtesy of HSBC.

HSBC on the Future, Advertisement Spotted in JFK Airport, June 2013

This poster is part of an ad campaign that I spotted recently at JFK airport.  I was being shunted down the jetbridge when I got out my camera, hence the rather poor quality of the photo.  The fish has a barcode on its side, and the ad campaign itself envisions a kind of free-trade neoliberal utopia facilitated by a world saturated by technology, as exemplified by our ichthyic friend here.  You can peruse other selections here.

There’s much one could say about this campaign, and more one should say about HSBC’s astonishing criminal record  (i.e. money laundering for drug cartels).  But I’ll restrain myself and offer this image as a blurry object of contemplation.

Scattered Thoughts on Glowing Trees and Other Transgressions

The New York Times website ran an article this morning about a bioengineering scheme to create glowing plants that could replace our current lighting technologies through their bioilluminescence.  Evidently hobby scientists in “communal laboratories” are making use of crowd-sourced fundraising in order to finance projects such as this.  The predictable, and probably justified reaction to this story might be to call to mind the common reading of Frankenstein as a cautionary tale of scientific overreach.  I might add that this reading does not even begin to unlock what is most intriguing about Mary Shelley’s novel, but I don’t care to get into that here.1  Emancipated from the old channels of funding, like Victor Frankenstein the people profiled here are working outside of the structures of institutional knowledge.

What struck me instead was the connection to Singularity University, a Silicon Valley based collective of technophiles in the academic and business sectors.  On a slow news day they can usually be hauled from the pages of Wired magazine onto more general interest domains to air their fantastic predictions of the future.  This is the crowd that you hear telling us that within a generation technology will allow for the transcending of our limited, slowly decaying biological bodies into a state of pure consciousness on a hard drive somewhere, where we will live forever in fear of nothing, except perhaps for the occasional stray kitchen magnet.  It’s a fantasy that doubtless looks more convincing if you happen to be a wealthy white employee of Google living in a gentrified San Francisco neighborhood with a reliable source of electricity.

Grandville-large

On a related note, NPR yesterday aired a story about one Corinna Lathan, another who has drifted from academia into the private sector.  Lathan is interested in more thoroughly saturating daily experience with those technologies with which we are already amusing ourselves to death (sensors on clothing that can read our emotional and physical states, glasses that display information about our surroundings, etc.).  In the introduction NPR draws a connection to another vision of technological excess more recent than Mary Shelley’s, the Borg from Star Trek.  As a Star Trek fan myself, I have more than once been drawn into a discussion of the Borg as an allegory for this or that.  It’s a topic that can occupy fans for days.”  I don’t tend to argue much with the “Borg as communist” thesis, although if we wish to go down that road, we should say more specifically that the Borg can be read as reflecting American Cold War ideological anxieties about the society in the “Second World.”  But like so many common sense readings, this one in my view misses what’s really interesting about the Borg.

If we start asking about the difference between the Borg and the set of relations that govern life on the U.S.S. Enterprise, then the apparent differences between the two start to collapse.  If the Borg are an allegory for communism, then surely that is so because they completely level the chain of command that structures Starfleet and that is the subject of so many plots.  But in this they have only put into practice the Federation’s democratic platitudes.  More than that, though, is the relation to technology.  Like the Borg, the people on the Enterprise live in, with, and through technology, and when minute 40 to 45 comes around and it’s time for the thrilling climax, the day can always be saved by pulling a rabbit out of some kind of techno-hat.  The key difference, it seems to me, is the illusion maintained on the Enterprise that the edges of the human body delineate some sort of border, marking off the physical interior as a sovereign space from the inorganic.  The illusion is maintained in spite of the fact that they all eat food from a kind of 3D printer.  Picard’s assimilation is a major moment of trauma in the series, but we already know he was pursuing his career with an artificial heart beating in his chest, and as we learn in the episode “Tapestry,” that piece of equipment signifies a watershed moment in his own subject formation.  Perhaps the real horror of the Borg with their cubic vessels and grotesque bio-technical bodies is simply that they present to the Enterprise an image of itself stripped of the aesthetic layers that support the illusion.

1. Instead I can recommend Paul Outka’s essay “Posthuman/Postnatural: Ecocriticism and the Sublime in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” in LeMenager, Stephanie (ed.) Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century. New York: Routledge, 2011. 31-48

Images of the Future

While trawling the internet recently I came across a few photos of Mike Reynolds’ work, and was reminded of the Democracy Now! broadcast from last fall, in which Amy Goodman toured one of his “earthship biotecture” houses.  The broadcast is worth checking out as a model for re-imagining our domestic architecture for a world in which we won’t be able to produce energy in the way we have been since the late 19th century.  What is particularly interesting is the production of an aesthetically pleasing structure out of refuse (the documentary on Reynolds is called Garbage Warrior).  That is, the creation of this structure that runs against the grain of prevailing means of consumption and disposal, at least in the so-called first world, is possible precisely because we generate such a sheer volume of supposedly useless materials that we generally try to sweep under the rug.  Whether this will catch on isn’t something that anyone can predict with any certainty, obviously.  But embracing the abject leftovers of industrial production and consumption is a powerful vision for more environmentally friendly modes of living beyond, say, future primitivism.

 

 

Generationengerechtigkeit

Deutschsprachigen Lesern ist die jüngste Sendung des Philosophischen Radios über Generationengerechtigkeit bei WDR anzuempfehlen.  Dr. Jörg Tremmel spricht über das Konzept der Generationen und die Frage nach unserer moralischen Verpflichtungen den Nachgeborenen gegenüber.  Es geht sehr um geläufige Vorstellungsweisen von Zukünftigkeit, und dabei kommen selbstverständlich eine ganze Menge ökologischer Fragestellungen ins Gespräch. Ich hätte einiges dazu zu sagen, aber für den Moment sage ich einfach, die Sendung ist auf jeden Fall hörenswert.