Thursday, 19 January 2017

The Weird and the Eerie by Mark Fisher

By now, everyone's heard that Mark Fisher has died.

On Saturday, I sat down in the afternoon to start The Weird and the Eerie, but just before I did so I (habitually) checked Facebook, only to learn that his death had just been announced. There was something extremely disquieting about that, a cruel irony that his latest book became his last just as I was about to begin.

I didn't know him, I had never met him, and I'd only become aware of his work in 2015. I didn't read K-Punk back when it was the hub of incandescent blogging it was the in the 2000s. I still haven't even finished Ghosts of My Life, for the single reason that Fisher's knowledge of popular (and unpopular) culture was so much vaster than mine that every page would introduce me to another band I hadn't heard, a film I hadn't seen, a TV show I'd not watched, and a book I'd not read. What I did read, his essays on Joy Division and Burial in particular, was extraordinary. Elegant, readable, blisteringly intelligent and full of vision.

As such, I don't presume to write an obituary. I'm just going to review a cool book by a cool guy, who I wish I'd known.


*

In this short and efficient primer, Fisher takes us on a tour of the different manifestations of the weird and the eerie. These are aesthetic experiences most often associated with the horror genre, but Fisher shows us that horror has no monopoly over either. 

The book is split into two halves, one for each of the topics. The chapters, all short, come as a pleasing staccato as one reads. None hang around for long, the weirdness or eeriness of their subject being quickly (though not hastily) drawn out, followed by a leap to the next. Fisher rarely spends more than a few pages on any single book or film or album. Instead, he seems to have wanted to equip the reader which as much material as possible for their own research, not wanting to exhaust any particular vein of the weird or the eerie. Instead, he acts here more like a surveyor, producing a map that he wants us to make use of, and explore more thoroughly.

Thus, the book feels more like a prolegomenon to future works on the weird and the eerie. Indeed, Fisher begins by acknowledging his neglect of these topics. One gets the impression he wanted to get the groundwork out the way, so the real task could begin.

The definitions Fisher gives us are as follows: by weird, we designate 'that which does not belong' [p. 10]. The hybrid, the alien, the ancient, all these are potential sources of the weird. It is typically shocking, even terrifying. The weird 'exceeds our capacity to represent' [p. 61], it is overwhelming. By eerie, we designate 'a failure of absence or... a failure of presence. The sensation of the eerie occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing, or there is nothing present when there should be something.' [Ibid.] The eerie, which is less typically shocking, is born out of something less overt than the weird. The eerie operates more by suggestion, by what is left unsaid. The weird has a note of grotesqueness, while the eerie has a note of lack. But I can't do justice to his definitions, they only come to light when we follow him through the examples he gives.

What is perhaps most striking in this book is the multiplicity of examples he uses to demonstrate the variant workings of weirdness and eeriness. The usual suspects are there (the weird as presented by H. P. Lovecraft, the eerie as presented by M. R. James), but there are many others who one would not approach in these terms: H.G. Wells' story The Door in the Wall is found to possess weird elements, as does the discography of The Fall, while eeriness is found in Nolan's Interstellar and John Glazer's Under the Skin.

What Fisher succeeds in doing is showing us that weirdness and eeriness are experiences that can, and do, occur in utterly unexpected ways, and in unexpected places. Nor must they always be horrifying, as both hint towards the possibility of radical alterity, to the idea that things are neither always what they seem, or fixed as they are right now. The unknown is not always unwelcome.

If you'd like to help support Mark Fisher's wife and son, you can do so with a donation here.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Auralux

*In the interests of readability, I've upped the font-size from 'invisible' to 'whoa'.*

Auralux is a mobile strategy game. I was introduced to it the recently. It's a very simple game, the only controls being scroll, zoom, and select. 

The player is confronted with a system of stars (planets in the second game), surrounded by points of energy. The stars generate these points of energy every second; the larger the star, the more energy points they produce. You use the energy points to upgrade your stars, defend them, and attack your opponents stars with. The aim isn't conquest, it's annihilation. You don't need to claim every star, you just have to be the last player standing. This is a game that prioritises annihilation over conquest. 

Of course, in order to be in a position to defend oneself, and to attack, you need to conquer territory first. Annihilation is something to be prepared for, once sufficient resources have been gathered. Although turtling is theoretically possible, it's difficult to make it work as the game rewards swiftness. Take too long to build up your defences, the opponents (never fewer than two) will claim enough territory for them to easily overcome one another, and then you. The game rewards decisiveness, but punishes stupidity. Over-reach your abilities, you'll be unable to hold onto territory and will have to retreat, a step that almost inevitably results in defeat. Strike too soon, you'll find you haven't the forces to knock either opponent out, and in the time it takes you to reinforce your numbers, you've fallen behind the race for territory. 

None of this is especially unique, one can apply all of this any RTS game. What is striking about Auralux is how stripped back it is, how minimalist it is. There is nothing of the baroque or excessive to it at all, just shapes, colours, and sounds. It's as if Kraftwerk designed it. Although it wouldn't be strictly accurate to call it a highly abstract 4X game (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) as there is no element of exploration, the other three Xs are present. You must expand your territory, exploit it, and exterminate the enemy. There is something very bloodless about it. Despite the focus on annihilation, the absence of anything overtly military or imperialist in its aesthetic leaves us just with the mechanics of a 4X strategy game, without anything that's directly suggestive of death.

The abstraction and minimalism is, of course, what makes it attractive. Cold, clean, bloodless, with 'spacey' ambient music as a soundtrack. When different clusters of energy attack one another, there is just a flash of light and a pleasant tinkling sound as they destroy each other, complementing the music. 

As it so happens, I was about halfway through The Dark Forest when I was introduced to this game. The emphasis the novel has on abstracting about possible interactions between cosmic civilisations, and the cold, precise elegance of the prose, very much chimes with the game. 

Auralux is the kind of game appropriate for the age of drones and cyber-warfare, for body counts, computer aided grand strategy, and the digitisation of combat. War as a game where you no longer need to break a sweat.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

*Spoilers*


The Dark Forest is in that great tradition of speculative fiction that deals with ideas and concepts over everything else. Make no mistake, this is hard SF, by thankfully Liu is a masterful storyteller, and the many long digressions on (among other things) axiomatic cosmic sociology, space propulsion, asymmetric warfare, and the impact of nuclear proliferation on geopolitics from the perspective of small countries, are all engrossing.

The story picks up where The Three-Body Problem left of, though only with a smattering of return characters. The focus is on Luo Ji, a failed academic (specialising in astronomy, moonlighting as a sociologist), who at the beginning of the novel is given the foundational axioms for a sociology of cosmic civilisations. 
First: Survival is the primary need of civilisation. Second: Civilisation continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant.
As well as these axioms, there are two other principles at the heart of cosmic sociology: the chain of suspicion, and the technological explosion. How these fit together only becomes obvious at the end of the novel. Luo Ji is given these by Ye Wenjie, who readers will recall brought the doom of Trisolaris upon humanity in the first novel. This is an interesting move as it will eventually be the axioms of cosmic sociology that bring humanity (apparent) salvation at the end of the novel.

Why, though, is cosmic sociology axiomatic? Because of the absence of evidence from which we could build an empirical sociology. Thus, in order to build a sociology of cosmic civilisation, one must reason from acceptable first principles. Luo Ji does precisely this.

I said above that this is hard SF, and it is, but the focus is less on science or technology than one might think. Liu spends much of his time considering strategy. Indeed, the novel feels almost like a puzzle that he has set himself, and the progress of reading it is us following him towards a solution.

What is the puzzle? The puzzle rests on how to fulfil the first axiom, namely, how does one assure the survival of one's civilisation? The following conditions are what Liu sets himself to work with.

  1. Humanity cannot make any fundamental scientific progress beyond what it had at the beginning of the 21st century. 
  2. Humanity has roughly 400 years to prepare itself for war with a foe who are substantially more technologically and scientifically advanced (including in fundamental science) than humanity.
  3. The foe can monitor any and all events that take place within the Solar System in real time, but cannot interfere above the atomic level. They can, however, communicate with individuals and groups of individuals. 
  4. The foe cannot read minds. Thoughts remain unknown.
  5. The foe is ignorant of strategy and deception, as the foe's natural form of communication is such that thought and speech are one-and-the-same.

In order to counter the threat from Trisolaris, and aware of the fact that Trisolaris cannot read minds, the UN establishes the Wallfacer Project. The Wallfacers are four individuals who are entrusted with huge resources, and instructed to use them to save humanity. They are never required to explain or justify themselves, and are encouraged to conceal their true strategy from everyone, both allies and enemies. The reason behind this is that, although humanity cannot hope to defeat Trisolaris technologically, they can hope to exploit their enemies poor comprehension of strategy and deception to outsmart them. 

Luo Ji is one of the Wallfacers, the other three are Frederick Tyler, an American military tactician and former Secretary of Defence; Rey Diaz, the former president of Venezuela (a more competent Hugo Chavez who defeated the US when they invaded his country); and Bill Hines, a British neuroscientist. 

Trisolaris is deeply concerned about the Wallfacers, and their agents on Earth establish the Wallbreakers, whose task it is to guess the strategy behind the Wallfacers' projects and reveal them to the world. Eventually, all but Luo Ji's strategies are unmasked and their plans fail. Eventually, we learn what Luo Ji's plan is: threatening to reveal the location of the Trisolaran homeworld to the rest of the galaxy. 

His strategy is born out entirely from the axioms of cosmic sociology. Assuming the first two principles, and the chain of suspicion and technological explosion, Luo Ji realises that any cosmic civilisation that reveals itself to the rest of the galaxy will be destroyed by any civilisation that learns of its presence, and has the means to destroy it. Why is this? Because each civilisation will pursue its own survival above all else, each civilisation grows but there is only a finite amount of matter in the universe, and any contact with another civilisation will immediately fall into the chain of suspicion. That is, due to the sheer otherness of alien life, and the impossibility of direct and meaningful communication over interstellar scales, it is impossible to determine the motivation another cosmic civilisation will have in alerting others to its presence. Further, the exponential growth of technology (the technological explosion) means that it is possible for a small and primitive civilisation to become advanced and powerful in a (cosmically speaking) short amount of time. As such, it is always more reasonable to assume that attempted contact is a trap, and a trap necessarily implies hostility, and hostile entities must be eliminated (in accordance with the first axiom).

As such, Luo Ji realises that if he reveals the location of Trisolaris to the rest of the galaxy, he will bring inevitable doom upon them (and also the Solar System, as the proximity of the Trisolaris system to our own will almost certainly mean that humanity is detected). This is his grand strategy, and with this he is able to outsmart the invaders.

Like I said, it feels like a puzzle, a challenge Liu set himself to solve over the 550 pages of the novel, and its very rewarding to follow his reasoning. If you're thinking that this makes the novel very cold... you're mostly right. Although the writing is very elegant throughout, characterisation is almost non-existent. We hear only what characters do, and very little about their inner life (which may very well be the point: the novel is itself a Wallfacer). 

In the end, The Dark Forest is more like a beautiful piece of clockwork than anything else, both precise and oddly chilling.

Check out this deeply haunting fan film, depicting the 'Droplet' sequence from the novel.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Irresponsible Heideggerean Musings

I've started an MA in philosophy.

One of my great and primary philosophical influences is Martin Heidegger. It's been a real pleasure to have some time and space to actually sit and read him, and read around him, again. I may do my dissertation on him.

These are some thoughts I jotted down recently. Likely unoriginal, but I'll share them all the same. There may be more to follow. 

God, Materialism and Being

Why isn't God the answer to the Question of Being? Because if God exists, then He is a being among beings. Even if He's the origin of all beings, and the foremost being in existence: how can a being be regarded as the font and ground of Being as such? God Himself is not to be regarded as the root of Being. 

The Nothingness of Being hangs over God as it hangs over everything.

This means nothing for the question of His existence per se, it is merely a comment on what His existence would precisely not mean.

But God is dead these days, as far as most people are concerned, though the God of the West (for the last thousand-plus years) has a habit of cheating death, so maybe we should watch this space. 

Anyway, with God in eclipse there is instead the material. So let's talk about that.

Material is not the answer to the Question. How could it be? Even if base material, or first substance, were the root of all beings, that says as little for the Question of Being as God's role as maker of all things did. If base material exists, it is an entity among entities. It is not the ground of Being.

Materialism, then, is as forgetful of ontology as traditional religion.

I don't see how any account of 'transcendental materialism' could escape this either. 

Friday, 12 August 2016

Interesting Things (1)

As seems customary for a blog, I'm going to start sharing roundups of various Interesting Things I've come across over the week.

You don't get any points for recognising the format (and you've all probably read/listened to at least some of these).

From beyond the orbit of Neptune!

Not read this yet, but it ticks all the right boxes (superficially, at least).

Ve shall build a new vorld, under ze ice!

Tentacles!

David J of Bauhaus was in a band with Alan Moore, talks to Phil Sandifer about magick and Northampton.

Currently listening to this.

And going to listen to this.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

THAT Žižek article

So, this happened.

There's a lot to say about this, such as this and this.

I'm not going to offer a survey of the (absolutely appropriate and on point) criticisms mentioned above. I'm not going to dignify the other criticisms accusing Žižek of being some kind of crypto-Nazi either.

I'm just going to offer a few vague ideas about what it is he's actually trying to articulate in the article in question.

I'm not suggesting that this is exhaustive, not even slightly. For a start, I'm going to leave the Lacanian stuff to one side because I've not read Lacan and I don't feel equipped to discuss any of that. Instead, I'm just going to give you a few short words about what I took him to be saying.

  1. Gendered (and all other) social relationships under capitalism suck
  2. All the same, there is something irreducible about the binary of gender, an antagonism in their very differentiation 
  3. Opening up the field of sexuality and gender to make room for a larger number of possible identities than the traditional binaries of sex and gender will not resolve the antagonism between the genders (any more than opening up the field of possible relationships with capital will resolve the primary antagonisms within the capitalist system) 
  4. Closing the field of sexuality and gender to restrict possible identities to the traditional binary and the traditional 'norms' of sex will not resolve the antagonism either 
  5. The queer rights movement, the trans rights movement and the work of deconstructing gender have been absolutely right to expose the historically contingent character of gender and sexual (social) identities  
  6. All the same, we shouldn't kid ourselves that we can do away with all social problems by simply allowing room for more identities than just the man/woman binary and heterosexuality 
  7. Discourse surrounding sex and gender prejudice often glides over class and race struggle in a deeply problematic way 
  8. Žižek could have said all of this a lot better

I'm not really defending the article, which is in places almost unforgivable, but there are ideas going on here, even if they're poorly put across and just weird. But ultimately, this is classic Žižek: highly suspicious of postmodern theory, reliant on psychoanalysis, fundamentally Hegelian.

Is he queerphobic and/or transphobic? In the sense of asking if he's opposed to furthering the rights of queer and trans people, no of course he isn't. One can be suspicious of postmodern theories of gender without advocating a biological or social essentialism that restrains the possibility of non-binary and non-heteronormative identities. And, ok, I can't quite remember where I heard him say it, but I have recently heard him flat-out say that the radical left ought to view the still-recent sexual and gender freedoms we now possess as victories.

All of this being said, one wonders how many trans people Žižek knows. It was actually a trans friend who alerted me to this piece in the first place, and I'm going to give her the last word: 'Well, he did a better job of it than Germaine Greer.'

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

'Universal' Culture

I'm aware that I'm probably being a bit too postmodern or structuralist or whatever in my analysis here, and, as ever, criticism is welcome. I also think the coherence of this piece is a bit tenuous, but, hell, I'll only get better if I keep trying...

The inimitable Scott Alexander has, once again, written An Interesting Thing, in response to Another Interesting Thing.

There's good stuff in this one:
I am pretty sure there was, at one point, such a thing as western civilization. I think it involved things like dancing around maypoles and copying Latin manuscripts. At some point Thor might have been involved. That civilization is dead. It summoned an alien entity from beyond the void which devoured its summoner and is proceeding to eat the rest of the world.
And:
“[W]estern medicine” is just medicine that works. It happens to be western because the West had a technological head start, and so discovered most of the medicine that works first. But there’s nothing culturally western about it; there’s nothing Christian or Greco-Roman about using penicillin to deal with a bacterial infection.
Also:
“Western culture” is no more related to the geographical west than western medicine. People who complain about western culture taking over their country always manage to bring up Coca-Cola. But in what sense is Coca-Cola culturally western? It’s an Ethiopian bean mixed with a Colombian leaf mixed with carbonated water and lots and lots of sugar. An American was the first person to discover that this combination tasted really good – our technological/economic head start ensured that. But in a world where America never existed, eventually some Japanese or Arabian chemist would have found that sugar-filled fizzy drinks were really tasty. It was a discovery waiting to be plucked out of the void, like penicillin. America summoned it but did not create it. If western medicine is just medicine that works, soda pop is just refreshment that works.

Read the whole article. It's great fun, as is ever the case with Scott Alexander. If you're one of those people who thinks that 'TL;DR' is ever a good response, I'll summarise: Alexander's argument is in response to a short piece by Bryan Caplan in which he argues that Western civilisation isn't anywhere near as fragile as people make it out to be, and that it is merrily conquering the whole world through sheer niceness and awesomeness. Alexander's response is a qualifier to Caplan, that it isn't 'Western civilisation' that's doing all this, it's something very different, which he dubs 'universal culture'.

The thing that makes it universal is that it's much more objective than other cultural forms and practices, which is why it works better and keeps winning. Hence the above comments about 'medicine that works' and 'soda pop that works'.

Now, I think I mostly agree with where he's coming from, but I think a few caveats are worthwhile.

First of all, he equates things that are obviously universally and objectively true, like medicine-that-works and drinks-that-are-nice with values he then posits as being universally and objectively true as well, such as 'democracy' and 'liberalism' and 'egalitarianism'. Is it really the case that these values have an objective and universal truth to them in the same way that the efficacy of penicillin and the tastiness of coke do?

A response to that would be that, from a utilitarian perspective, you could argue that values can be universally and objectively true if they consistently produce desirable utility outcomes, but that doesn't address the fact that the values behind the utility measure are very much grounded in contingent Western values about the desirability of reducing moral questions to utility calculations in the first place!

He also, and this is the most curious thing for me, seems to equate 'universal culture' with global capitalism. Indeed, his demonic metaphors made me think of Deleuze and Gauttari's characterisation of capitalism as the unspeakable Thing that demolishes all values, the monster all despotic civilisations had to guard against that, eventually, ate them alive. I think his essay would have been much improved by the concept of 'deterritorialisation'.

(I want Scott to read Anti-Oedipus. I don't have my copy to hand but I distinctly remember D & G talking about the contingent origins of global-capitalism in a little peninsula on the edge of Asia (that's us, Europe), with the great expanse of the sea's horizon calling us to explore it, with the competitive disorder of the web of feudal societies making the kind of general harmony found in China possible, creating an ideal environment for the emergence of Capital.)

Gathering my thoughts together, my key point is this: he's wrong to suggest that world-culture or global-culture or 'universal' culture is somehow a-cultural, that it isn't at least partially still inhabited with the specific cultural contingencies of its origin. What about other cultural elements that aren't so easily reducible to objective science? The ubiquity of Western media and fashion, for instance, doesn't strike me as being to do with Western movies being 'objectively' better or Western fashion being 'objectively' superior. They strike me as contingent cultural features that became global on the back of global capitalism. Perhaps that's all these remnants of the distinctively western are, but I don't think so. Modernity is distinctively Western, because the idea of modernity itself is fundamentally Western.

Alexander recently shared this article on the tribalism of people who characterise themselves as cosmopolitan, as opposed to the stereotypical 'Little Englander'.
This species [of cosmopolitan] is racially diverse (within limits) and eager to assimilate the fun-seeming bits of foreign cultures — food, a touch of exotic spirituality. But no less than Brexit-voting Cornish villagers, our global citizens think and act as members of a tribe. They have their own distinctive worldview (basically liberal Christianity without Christ), their own common educational experience, their own shared values and assumptions (social psychologists call these WEIRD — for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and of course their own outgroups (evangelicals, Little Englanders) to fear, pity and despise. And like any tribal cohort they seek comfort and familiarity: From London to Paris to New York, each Western “global city” (like each “global university”) is increasingly interchangeable, so that wherever the citizen of the world travels he already feels at home.
That sounds a lot like what Alexander is trying to present as universal and a-cultural...

I don't want to agree with Nick Land here, but I'm reminded of one of the possible outcomes he gives for global modernity in The Dark Enlightenment:
(1) Modernity 2.0. Global modernization is re-invigorated from a new ethno-geographical core, liberated from the degenerate structures of its Eurocentric predecessor, but no doubt confronting long range trends of an equally mortuary character. This is by far the most encouraging and plausible scenario (from a pro-modernist perspective), and if China remains even approximately on its current track it will be assuredly realized. [My emphasis.]
That is, Land anticipates that modernity, which I think is identical to what Alexander calls 'universal culture', may happen all over again, but with the unique and contingent cultural inheritance of somewhere other than Western Europe and its former colonies.

The problem here is that Alexander has fallen for the great conceit of liberal modernity, namely, that it really is universal and objective, and isn't grounded in pre-existing cultural norms. It pretends to be the light when really it just carries the candle.

Added: I'm not trying to make the relativist argument that as our values appear to emerge from contingencies that all cultural norms should be treated with equal respect, I'm just trying to, at the very least, render problematic the idea that our present global order is somehow 'objectively' correct.