Layers of Heaven

“What is it about punk?

“Back in the ‘60s—now safe and cozy under a twenty-year blanket of consensus history—the basic social division was straight vs. hip, right vs. left, pigs ‘n’ freaks, feds ‘n’ heads. Spiro Agnew vs. Timothy Leary. It was a clear, simple gap that sparked and sputtered like a high-voltage carbon arc. The country was as close to civil war as it’s been in modern times. News commentators sometimes speak of this as a negative thing—burning cities, correct revolutionary actions, police riots—but there was a lot of energy there. ‘60s people think of the old tension as “good” in somewhat the same way that ‘40s people look back on the energy of WWII as “good.”

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“A simple dichotomy. But during the ‘70s times got tough, and all the ‘60s people got older. Madison Avenue turned hip into product. Businessmen got hot-tubs; and they weren’t necessarily faking—I know a number of present-day businessmen who are regular old-time acidheads, but…you’ve got to get the bread to send your kids to college, right? The gap between hip and straight is still there, but it’s faded, the jags have rubbed off.

“If you’re young, you want to come up with something new—that’s how the race grows. Some ‘80s youngsters may want to be straights—our country will always need sports fans and prison guards—but the smart ones, the ones who ask hard questions, the same kids who would have been hippies in the ‘60s—these people needed some kind of stance that would bug all old people. Thus punk.

“I used to live in the boonies, and LP records were my contact to what was happening. The only good music in the ‘70s was Zappa, and even he was getting old. I’ll never forget the excitement of the first punk records—the New York Dolls, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, and then…the Clash. Of course that was all eight years ago (which, these exponential days, is a long time). It keeps mutating. Now I listen to the Ramones, Detox, and the Butthole Surfers. “Yes, the Butthole Surfers.” Doesn’t that tell you more than, “Yes, the New Yorker?”

“The real charm of punk is that stupid hippies dislike it as much as do stupid rednecks. “What’s the matter with them? What do they want?” Anyone who was ever a hippie for the right reasons—a hatred of conformity and a desire to break through to higher realities—is likely to appreciate and enjoy the punks. But a lot of basically conventional people slid through the ‘70s thinking of themselves as avant-garde, when in fact they were brain-dead. What’s good about punk is that it makes all of us question our comfortable assumptions and attitudes. Wait…look at that last sentence, and you can see I’m forty. How complacently I slip the “us” in there—trying to co-opt the revolution. How Life magazine of me, how plastic, how bullshit. What’s good about punk is that it’s fast and dense. It has a lot of information. Which brings us to “cyber.”

What is Cybernetics?

“It’s the title of an incomprehensible book by Norbert Weiner, mainly. Claude Shannon, the Bell Labs inventor of information theory, encouraged Weiner to use the word “cybernetics” because “No one knows what it means, Norbert, which will always put you at an advantage in an argument.” More seriously, if I talk about “cyber,” I really want to talk about the modern concept of information.

“Mathematics can be thought of as based on five concepts: Number, Space, Logic, Infinity, and Information. The age of Number was the Middle Ages, with their nitpicking lists of sins and layers of heaven. Space was the Renaissance, with perspective and the printing press spreading copies out. Logic was the Industrial Revolution, with great steam engines chugging away like syllogistic inferences. Infinity was Modern Times, with quantum mechanics and LSD. Now we’re starting on Information. The computers are here, the cybernetic revolution is over.

Text: Rudy Rucker, from What Is Cyberpunk?

Image: Peter Daverington, The New Colony-From Bierstadt to Neuromancer, 2008-2009

“I don’t know”

“Annihilation’s great achievement is in exploring these themes through object embodiment, rather than in words. Lena returns to Area X but can only respond to her interrogator’s questions with, “I don’t know.” The self is an unknowable thing, in some ways, just as one can never truly reach the lighthouse. Lena goes back to the version of Kane who returned from the Shimmer, and they embrace. But they are left with an unanswerable question: “Who are you?”

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“One answer to this question is that we are all just beings made of cells, and therefore mortal. Just as cells split to create life, Lena observes, each cell also contains within it the fault that leads to senescence and death. Mortality is thus the defining feature of life’s basic unit: It’s in our genes. When genes are toyed with, as in the Shimmer, the problem of life and mortality comes into sharper focus. Each of the women on the mission contains within herself a drive for self-destruction: nobody enters the Shimmer without one, Dr. Ventress observes. And so each explorer heads inexorably towards the lighthouse—Woolf’s symbol for desire—but also towards death.

“One of the most intriguing details in Annihilation is a tattoo that appears and disappears on Lena’s arm. It’s in a figure-eight shape, like an infinity symbol, but its details show an ouroboros—a snake eating its tail. The tattoo also appears on Anya the paramedic sometimes, and on Kane. The Shimmer seems to work like the patch tool in Photoshop, flinging little bits of self around, redistributing them. The ouroboros is a symbol for the continual flow of death into life into death into life, just as the cells which seed death inside us also split to create life…”

Text: Annihilation Is a Brilliant Splicing of Woolf With Cronenberg, The New Republic

Pic: The Nymph Echo, 1936 – by Max Ernst

Intense Emotions Hurt

“One of the most important through-lines this film and its predecessor share is the way in which both principal antagonists regard replicants as their “children”. It’s important for a lot of reasons, but for my purposes it’s important for one very specific reason, which is that their children are the direct product of how they’ve been treated by their parents.

“Tyrell and Wallace are both the abusive, neglectful fathers of abused, neglected children, and it shows most piercingly in how their children process – and fail to process – emotion. This manifests a bit differently in each film, and I’d argue much more clearly in the second, but it’s always there. As fathers, they appear to imagine themselves as benevolent and caring, at least to some degree. When Tyrell finally encounters Roy Batty, at first he’s gentle with his prodigal son. What he doesn’t understand until it’s far too late is that Roy really has come looking for his father. He wants more life, but he also wants to understand why he’s alive at all, what his value is, what he’s worth, and he needs that worth to be more than the sum of his use.

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“He was never truly loved, never valued, and when he’s brought face to face with that, he reacts how you should expect. Throughout the rest of the film he’s a burning core of wildly expressed emotion, boomeranging from rage to grief to glee to pain to scorn to hatred and finally to peace. As with K, he’s all or he’s nothing. He’s calm or he’s tearing the world apart.

“Replicants exist in an uncomfortable limbo between having a parent and having none, between knowledge of a distant and detached creator and the knowledge that they’ve always been alone. There’s obviously a god-thing going on here, and it’s not especially subtle, but there are also deeper questions at work regarding what this limbo actually does to a thinking, feeling entity.

Implanted memories might function as a cushion, but they don’t make up for a parent who was never there, and they don’t paper over the knowledge that you were created to be a thing with no other purpose beyond the purely functional.

“The horror in which replicants live is to be fully and completely aware of all of this, of the falseness of the experiences that were given to them to train their feelings, and of their inability to be genuinely close to anyone.

“Blade Runner is telling a story in significant part about how ruinous it is to be denied a personal history. Survivors of child abuse have been denied the same thing in a lot of ways: the time in which children are supposed to be learning what it is to feel healthy emotion and form healthy connections is disrupted and destroyed, and difficulty in processing intense emotion is a common result. That includes difficulty in understanding what emotions even are, in the task of articulating them to oneself. What we can’t articulate or understand, we can’t control. And intense emotion is terrifying, because intense emotion hurts.”

Text: Sunny Moraine,  We Are Not Things: Blade Runner’s unwanted children

Pic: Left: interior of Barozzi Veiga’s 2010 Neanderthal Museum design. Right: Concept art by Peter Popken for the interior of Wallace’s office in Blade Runner 2049.

The Thingness of All Living Things

“The notion expressed by Harrison Ford that spectators require a “human being on screen” with whom to connect is thus challenged by Villeneuve. In Blade Runner 2049, even the blade runners are copycats. “How does it feel killing your own kind?” Morton asks K before being retired. “I don’t mind my own kind because we don’t run,” K says. “Only older models do.” A hierarchy of being is erected in Blade Runner 2049. “The world is built on a wall that separates kind,” Lt. Joshi informs K. “Tell either side there’s no wall – you bought a war.” The humans of Blade Runner, sitting atop that social pyramid, are preceded by different classes of replicants (Nexus-6, Nexus-7, Nexus-8, etc.), and further down are robots, machines, and holograms. These physiologically and materially diverse beings inhabit a hyper-stratified society teetering on the brink of a civil war. “Am I the only one who can see the fucking sunrise here?” Lt. Joshi exclaims, fearing others might discover Rachael’s half-human child. “This breaks the world.” Beings of all kinds, when confronted by questions of identity and social difference, tribalize. The words “fuck off skinner” are aptly scribbled on the door to K’s apartment. The schismatic dystopia of 2049 reflects unto audiences the cultural polarities of their own historical moment. Even Lt. Joshi’s analogy of a society built on a wall is charged with racialized political innuendo.

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“If, in Blade Runner, that wall partitioned replicants from humans, in 2049, it is far more stratified, not only separating people from replicants, but replicants from other replicants, holograms from other holograms. The inhabitants of Villeneuve’s dystopia maintain stability by staying walled off from one another. Yet the more gradated any hierarchy – the more sprawling a wall – the greater the possibility exists for transgression, for unexpected cross-border play. An enlarged surface area only increases opportunities for its permeability. Thus, much more so than its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 inhabits a gray area, an in-between space where “species” meet: gestating replicants, humanlike holograms, and artificial blade runners. In doing so, it resists Lt. Joshi’s fatalistic hypothesis. Villeneuve’s Blade Runner calls not for a sublimation or homogenization of social difference, but for its intensification. The film reveals (and revels in) the shared “thingliness” of all (non-)living beings. Everything around us – ourselves included – is composed of matter, of matter that matters. Blade Runner 2049 thus offers a counter-narrative to our present-day politics of tribalism. It proffers a post-humanist egalitarianism by amplifying and celebrating its protagonists’ diversity.”

Text: Raymond de Luca, Vibrant Matter in Blade Runner 2049 

Pic: Blade Runner 2049 production still

Really, really, really, really great

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“Anytime we’re talking about cultural objects like Avatar, in a corporate dominant culture, we are playing with fire, clearly. When the so-called indigenous is so-called natural, the extraordinary naturalization of the indigenous, no matter how talented, no matter how really, really, really, really great, no matter how many inventions they may have invented – but it requires the other half of the equation. Which is a particular production of whiteness. Even though there were plenty of people of colour occupying the category of whiteness in that film. Whiteness is a space to occupy for those who are associated with the technologies of conquest, extraction, commerce, etc. and that strikes me. Both of those two require each other. And actual, living people believe these things of each other, to damaging degrees. Such that I know no small number of white people, some of whom I’ve found in my own skin, at various moments, you know, who somehow feel less able to speak up, in a critical way, in a conversation with someone who is produced as more natural. Whether it’s in an indigenous rights discussion, a discussion about who owns race, class, and gender properties, and so on, and so on. The very much in play ways that these story-fragments continue to set people out around these nature/technology contrasts, to perpetuate the trouble. People actually inhabit these imagined positions and do it to one another, including doing it to oneself. So, take the hyper-murderous, almost-impossible to kill – the machine enemy right out of the Alien sequence, you know that particular kind of killer robot that shows up, in how many films? It was in District 9, it was in Alien – it shows up, it’s a required visual object that does in my view, a whole lot of race production work. It is one of the technologies of the production of this thing I’ll call whiteness. Whether white people occupy that position or not, or so-called Euro-people.”

Text: Donna Haraway, The Dialogical Avatar, &&& Journal