Fear of a Black Metal: Cyclonopedia and Evil

Borrowing everything from the Scandinavians except the panda paint, America Black Metal bands blend the core aesthetic with other subgenres to great effect. Over the past few years, it has become my favorite accompanying sound for almost any activity. Its energy, its all-encompassing crests and crumbles, its sheer power moves me in ways no other genre has in many years. And I am not alone: The darkness of this stuff touches something in us, something buried deep in our beings, in our nature.

We cannot understand and fight evil as long as we consider it to be an abstract concept external to ourselves.
— Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Evil, p. 231

Among the best of this mix of subgenres (e.g., Seidr, Panopticon, Deafheaven, Liturgy, Krallice, Falls of Rauros, et al.), the undisputed masters stateside are Wolves in the Throne Room. Their Cascadian Black Metal is as majestic as it is monolithic, mixing the forest and the trees, their epic songs can be as dense as they are sparse. In a 2006 interview, they explain the draw of Black Metal:

True Norwegian Black Metal is completely unbalanced – that is why it is so compelling and powerful. It is the sound of utter torment, believing to one’s core that winter is eternal. Black Metal is about destruction, destroying humanity; destroying ones own self in an orgy of self loathing and hopelessness. I believe one must focus on this image of eternal winter in order to understand Black Metal for it is a crucial metaphor that reveals our sadness and woe as a race. In our hubris, we have rejected the earth and the wisdom of countless generations for the baubles of modernity. In return, we have been left stranded and bereft in this spiritually freezing hell.

To us, the driving impulse of Black Metal is more about deep ecology than anything else and can best be understood through the application of eco-psychology. Why are we sad and miserable? Because our modern culture has failed – we are all failures. The world around us has failed to sustain our humanity, our spirituality. The deep woe inside black metal is about fear – that we can never return to the mythic, pastoral world that we crave on a deep subconscious level. Black Metal is also about self loathing, for modernity has transformed us, our minds, bodies and spirit, into an alien life form; one not suited to life on earth without the mediating forces of technology, culture and organized religion. We are weak and pitiful in our strength over the earth – in conquering, we have destroyed ourselves. Black Metal expresses disgust with humanity and revels in the misery that one finds when the falseness of our lives is revealed (quoted in Smith, 2006).

The urge to return to our roots is a prevailing ethos in Black Metal of all paints. In Norway, it’s about returning to the Norse traditions that predate the Christian and Western influences on the culture there. For Wolves in the Throne Room, it’s about a return to nature. “Our music is balanced in that we temper the blind rage of Black Metal with the transcendent truths of the universe that reveal themselves with age and experience,” they continue. “Our relationship with the natural world is a healing force in our lives” (quoted in Smith, 2006). Drummer and one half of the brothers that make up the core of Wolves in the Throne Room, Aaron Weaver was taken by Black Metal upon first hearing it. “… it’s more about creating a trance effect. It’s really got more in common with shamanic drumming and with noise music. It’s not heavy metal, it’s not riffs, it’s not head-banging music at all… It’s meditative music. Most heavy metal is very extroverted. It’s about putting on a big show and head banging and drinking a beer with your buddies. Black metal is the exact opposite. It’s all about gazing inwards and trying to discover things about yourself” (quoted in Moyer, p. 42). Having seen these guys live last year, I can truly say that their music is introspective to the point of turning one inside out.

Weaver discusses the connections between Black metal and the radical Northwestern culture he and his brother are immersed in, both of which are about “critiquing civilization, yearning for a more ancient sense of the world, a connection with tradition and nature that we’ve perhaps lost as modern people.” That’s not the whole of it, of course, he adds, “Then the darker side of it as well exists in both worlds. In both the Black Metal world and the ecological punk world, a hatred of humanity and a strong sense of misanthropy as we look around and see what humanity has wrought” (Moyer, p. 42).

We are going back to the future and forward to the past, engaging all of history’s villains and saints in quick time… Ancient ethnic sores are belching fire while transnational companies linked by satellites conduct their business oblivious to the fuedal past below. — Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 18.

Aside from Lords of Chaos (feral house, 2003) and the documentary Until the Light Takes Us (2009), Hideous Gnosis (CreateSpace, 2010) is the most in-depth exploration of what Black Metal’s not-so-joyous noise might mean to fans and to theorists of same. Though it’s a compilation of essays, documents, and thoughts from a symposium by the same name, which took place on December 12, 2009 in Brooklyn, New York, the book stands alone well as a collection of academic work on the subject. Edited by Nicola Masciandaro, it brings together pieces by Steven Shakespeare, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix (of Liturgy), Eugene Thacker, Reza Negarestani, and Evan Calder Williams, among many others, as well as naysayers and haters from the blog’s comments section, “to bask in the speculative glory of the problematic,” as Reza Negarestani puts it (quoted in Masciandaro, p. 267). Whenever academics or nerds turn their attention to something so sacredly held as Black Metal, its fans are likely to be wary. But if you, like me, enjoy immersing yourself in as many aspects as possible of the things you love, this collection is a welcome addition to Blackened Theory, the literature, music, thought, and culture that is Black Metal — and the internal, eternal evil that drives it.

@1jamiebell: What’s the speed of dark? (Tweeted March 22, 2012)

Another symposium collection, Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium (punctum books, 2011) brings together scholars to discuss Reza Negarestani’s world-warping book Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (re.press, 2008). Not since Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (Pantheon, 2000) have I been so simultaneously intrigued and scared of a book. It is a return to the “hidden prehistory” (as Steven Shaviro describes it) of the dark global forces of the twenty-first century. It is at once philosophical fiction, nomad archeology, Middle Eastern occult study, object-oriented ontology, and straight-up horror, all centered on Western civilization’s lust for oil, the darkest of matters. Leper Creativity sets out to excavate this work’s dark secrets. Their own introductory language reads as follows:

Essays, articles, artworks, and documents taken from and inspired by the symposium on Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, which took place on 11 March 2011 at The New School. Hailed by novelists, philosophers, artists, cinematographers, and designers, Cyclonopedia is a key work in the emerging domains of speculative realism and theory-fiction. The text has attracted a wide-ranging and interdisciplinary audience, provoking vital debate around the relationship between philosophy, geopolitics, geophysics, and art. At once a work of speculative theology, a political samizdat, and a philosophic grimoire, Cyclonopedia is a Deleuzo-Lovecraftian middle-eastern Odyssey populated by archeologists, jihadis, oil smugglers, Delta Force officers, heresiarchs, and the corpses of ancient gods. Playing out the book’s own theory of creativity – “a confusion in which no straight line can be traced or drawn between creator and created – original inauthenticity” – this multidimensional collection both faithfully interprets the text and realizes it as a loving, perforated host of fresh heresies. The volume includes an incisive contribution from the author explicating a key figure of the novel: the cyclone.

More than worthy of a symposium as such, Cyclonopedia bridges and problematizes the divide between modern, global politics and the dark forces of ancient humanity. Claudia Card (2002) wrote, “The denial of evil has become an important strand of twentieth-century secular Western culture” (p. 28). To deny evil is to deny ourselves, to deny a part of our positive nature. Cyclonopedia digs deep into both sides. It is a triumph in both form and content. We’re dropped into the first hole in the plot as a young American woman arrives at a hotel in Istanbul to meet an online acquaintance with an unpronounceable name who never actually shows up. She finds a manuscript in her hotel room and begins culling its clues leaving her to wonder if her friend from afar was real at all (as Johnny did Zumpano in House of Leaves). “Meanwhile, as the War on Terror escalates,” the jacket copy explains, “the U. S. is dragged into an asymmetrical engagement with occultures whose principles are ancient, obscure, and saturated in oil. It is as if war itself is feeding upon the warmachines, leveling cities into the desert, seducing the aggressors into the dark heart of oil.” As Howard Bloom (1995) explains, “Behind the writhing of evil is a competition between organizational devices, each trying to harness the universe to its own particular pattern, each attempting to hoist the cosmos one step higher on a ladder of increasing complexity” (p. 325). The Middle East is sentient, alive, proclaims the embedded manuscript’s author Dr. Hamid Parsani, dark forces its lifeblood, its story the evil of all of history — human and nonhuman.

“Evil is a by-product, a component, of creation” Bloom (1995, p. 2) writes matter-of-factly. To understand its legion forces, we have to look extensively at the edges between nefarious, non-human history, as well as the insidious inside ourselves. It is in this way that the draw of Black Metal and the study of its ethos is something we cannot afford to ignore.

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Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium is available as a free download from punctum books. Many thanks to Kenyatta Cheese who emailed me about Cyclonopedia almost two years ago. Sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake.

References:

Beck, Don, & Cowan, Christopher. (1996). Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

Bloom, Howard. (1995). The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Card, Claudia. (2002). The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil. New York: Oxford University Press.

Masciandro, Nicola. (ed.) (2010). Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Symposium 1. New York: CreateSpace.

Moyer, Matthew. (2011, Winter). Wolves in the Throne Room: From Mount Olympia. Ghetto Blaster, 30, 40-42.

Negarestani, Reza. (2008). Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials. New York: re.press.

Smith, Bradley. (2006). Interview with Wolves in the Throne Room. Nocturnal Cult.

Keller, Ed, Nicola Masciandaro, Nicola, & Thacker, Eugene. (eds.). (2011). Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium. New York: punctum books.

Svendsen, Lars. (2010). A Philosophy of Evil. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive.

The Deleuzian Delusion

Michel Foucault once said that the twentieth century might eventually be considered Deleuzian, and he still may end up being right.  Gilles Deleuze, and his frequent cowriter, Félix Guattari, wrote some unignorable books in the late decades of last century, the two volumes Anti-Oedipus (University of Minnesota Press, 1983) and A Thousand Plateaus (University of Minnesota Press, 1987) being the two most prominent in either’s canon. Each has an extensive body of work in his own right, but Deleuze casts a large shadow over his friend and colleague. Such a shadow in fact, that it prompted Ian Bogost to Tweet the following on March 3rd, 2012:

@ibogost: Earnest, snark-free question: how did Deleuze get so popular? What is it about Deleuze that is so appealing to so many?

Assemblages, rhizomes, bodies-without-organs, repetition, difference… I can’t claim to have an answer to Bogost’s question, as I can’t claim to understand much of the Deleuze that I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot of it, and a lot of it more than twice). I do know that a lot of it is difficult simply by dint of the contrarian angle on subjectivity: These books challenge the fundamental way(s) most of us tend to feel that being in the world works. Holland (1999) opens his book with the obvious: “The Anti-Oedipus is not easy to read” (p. 1). About writing it with his coauthor, Deleuze said, “Between Félix and his diagrams and me with my verbal concepts, we wanted to work together, but we didn’t know how” (2006, p. 238). And about A Thousand Plateaus, he mused, “Now we didn’t think for a minute of writing a madman’s book, but we did write a book in which you no longer know, or need to know, who is speaking…” (quoted in Nadaud, 2006, p. 19). On page 22 of the latter, they even write it out, in black and white: “We are writing this book as a rhizome. It is compose of plateaus. We have given it a circular form, but only for laughs.” How is one to make sense of bastard philosophy such as this?

I once asked my friend and mentor Steven Shaviro what path to take as I embarked upon the plateaus alone for the first time. He suggested using Claire Parnet’s Dialogues (Columbia University Press, 1987) as a sort of crib notes to the two major volumes mentioned above. Dialogues was compiled between the writing of Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus. Deleuze talked about the book’s in-betweenness (i.e., its being between both the two books and the three authors), writing that what mattered was “the collection of bifurcating, divergent, and muddled lines which constituted this book as a multiplicity and which passed between the points, carrying them along without going from one to the other” (Deleuze & Parnet, 1987, p. ix). And so it goes. My Deleuzian delusion is that I’ll ever get a handle on this stuff.

Somewhat thankfully, there is now Gilles Deleuze: From A to Z (Semiotext(e), 2012), a three-DVD set of those liminal lines between Deleuze and Parnet. Covering topics alphabetically, from A for “Animal” to Z for “Zigzag,” it’s a rare and interesting look at the man and his letters. Unlike the film Derrida (Jane Doe Films, 2002) on Jacques Derrida, of course, this is not really a documentary. Parnet, a former student of Deleuze’s, knew him well, and director Pierre-André Boutang likens Deleuze and Parnet to a Jazz duo, playing off of each other in an improvisation of concepts and cons, using the alphabet as a grounding framework. “Deleuze had taken into account the fact that each reel lasted ten minutes,” Boutang (2004) wrote, “which produced a rhythm. And the charm of 16mm film is that the sound reel lasts longer than the image. With some people, you cut once the image stops. You don’t feel like doing that with Deleuze” (p. 7). During the discussion about culture (C is for Culture), Deleuze says, “Talking is dirty. Writing is clean.” If you snuggle in to watch this DVD, get ready for four hours of dirty, dirty talking.

Many others have tried to make sense of Deleuze in book form, with various tropes and varying degrees of success. The most recent being Gregory Flaxman. Flaxman is not new to Deleuze: His previous book was The Brain is the Screen: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, 2000). His latest, Gilles Deleuze and the Fabulation of Philosophy: Powers of the False, Volume 1 (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), uses the idea of friendship as an initial condition from which to reexamine Deleuze’s philosophy. Covering everything from Deleuze’s apprenticeship with Friedrich Nietzsche to his vow to overthrow Plato, Flaxman reintroduces aesthetics to Deleuzian studies, showing how Deleuze situated fiction in the center of a minor philosophy. He writes, “Deleuze declares no abiding loyalties: not only does he mingle with countless philosophers, but he flirts with just as many writers, filmmakers, and artists” (p. 181). This nomadic “promiscuity” is one more reason that the well of Deleuze’s ideas isn’t likely to run dry any time soon, and Flaxman’s is a deep and welcome reconsideration. Moreover, his focus on friendship is intriguing. Stivale (1998) wrote, “This rapport of friendship lies, I believe, at the very core of these authors’ collaborative engagement…” (p. ix). Nietzsche freed Deleuze from the arid areas of academe, and Deleuze focused Guattari without truncating his thoughts too much (which, if you’ve read any Guattari without Deleuze, you know they needed a trim here and there; though Deleuze might not agree with my assessment: He speaks highly and fondly of Guattari in A to Z [L for Loyalty]).

Speaking of friendship, if you’d like a more personal — and historical — look at Deleuze and his main co-conspirator, there’s François Dosse’s Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives (Columbia University Press, 2010), which, appropriately enough, is 651 pages long. The duo met shortly after the revolts of May, 1968 (to which Anti-Oedipus is largely a reaction: “Initially it was less a question of pooling knowledge than the accumulation of our uncertainties,” Guattari said in Chaosophy [2009, p. 69]). Guattari had just been passed over as Lacan’s successor, which sent him into a deep depression tempered only by throes of mania. With a milder manner and more comfort within his confines, Deleuze was the calm of their storm, a storm that still surges through classes and discussions in philosophy, postmodernism, post-structuralism, cultural studies, film studies, net criticism, and so on. So, what was their beef with Marx, Freud, Plato, and every other thinker (save Nietzsche and Foucault, of course) that preceded them? It’s all here. Dosse’s book is the definitive story of these two major collaborators, thinkers, writers, jokesters, and, perhaps above all, friends.

Desire is under it all, according to the iconoclastic French duo. The capitalism machine creates layers and layers of desires and subsequently splits selves into schizophrenia (hence the subtitle of both volumes of their two-volume work: Capitalism and Schizophrenia). William Carlos Williams (1923) once wrote, “The pure products of America go crazy.” That’s not exactly what they meant, but maybe that’s why Deleuze, along with Guattari, have such a hold on the academy’s mass mind: Our spirits are all spiraling apart in so many separate ways, just as they said they would all those years ago. But maybe, as they were, we can still be friends.

References:

Boutang, Pierre-André. (2004, February). Everything About Gilles Deleuze and Nothing About Gilles Deleuze. RevueVertigo, no. 25.

Boutang, Pierre-André (Director). (2012). Gilles Deleuze: A to Z, with Claire Parnet [DVD]. United States: Semiotext(e).

Deleuze, Gilles. (2006). Letter to Uno: How We Worked Together. In Two Regimes of Madness. New York: Semiotext(e).

Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Félix. (1983). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Félix. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, Gilles & Parnet, Claire. (1987). Dialogues. New York: Columbia University Press.

Foucault, Michel. (1995). [front cover copy]. In Gilles Deleuze Negotiations. New York: Columbia University Press.

Guattari, Félix. (2009). Chaosophy: Texts and Interviews 1972-1977. New York: Semiotext(e).

Holland, Eugene W. (1999). Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Introduction to Schizoanalysis. New York: Routledge.

Massumi, Brian. (1992). A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Nadaud, Stéphane. (2006). Love Story between an Orchid and a Wasp. In Guattari, Félix, The Ani-Oedipus Papers. New York: Semiotext(e), p. 11-22.

Stivale, Charles J. (1998). The Two-Fold Thought of Deleuze and Guattari: Intersections and Animations. New York: Guilford.

Williams, William Carlos. (1923). Spring and All.

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I am indebted to Steven Shaviro, Katie Arens, and Ken Wark for what little I understand about the subject(s) at hand.

Mise-en-Zine: Adolescent Anthologies

Zines, well, mostly skateboard and BMX zines, defined my formative years. They were our network of news, stories, interviews, events, art, and pictures. It’s very difficult to describe how an outmoded phenomena like that worked once such epochal technological change, one that uproots and supplants its cultural practices, has occurred. FREESTYLIN’s reunion book, Generation F (Endo Publishing, 2008), has a chapter called “The Xerox was Our X-Box,” and that title gets at the import of these things. As I said in that very chapter, “Making a zine was always having something to send someone that showed them what you could do, what you were up to, and what you were into. Ours was the pre-web BMX network” (p. 116, 122). All nostalgia aside, zines are making a comeback, albeit in book-form. Anthologies of old, DIY photocopied publications are making their way through the labyrinth of quasi-traditional publishing.

The true gems of skateboarding zines include Andy JenkinsBend, Tod Swank‘s Swank Zine, Joe Polevy’s Rise Above, Rodger BridgesDancing Skeleton, Grim Ripper, and Power House, and Garry Scott Davis’s Skate Fate, the latter of which has just been collected into a fierce 320-page book, Skate Fate: The Best of Skate Fate: 1981-1991 (Blurb, 2011). In one of my own zines a while back, Rodger Bridges said of Garry Scott Davis,

GSD changed my life. He taught me design. Post-zine design. Pre-computer design. He made me perform leading on long-ass articles by hand, and checked my accuracy by pica. The progenitor of skeleton-less moves that changed skateboarding, skate zine and grunge typography/design. Way before what’s-his-name. In my book at least. And it don’t stop. He don’t stop. I’ve received multiple packages in multiple mailboxes due to multiple relocations over the years since our physical paths diverged. All of them filled with evidence of his creative continuum. CARE packages stocked with vinyl and plastic from his band CUSTOM FLOOR, back issues of Arcane Candy, and thick-ass zines chronicling life, Stingray obsession, and ongoing brilliant collaborations. My Skate Fate collection has survived hurricanes and flooded garages, sacredly stored in boxes and solidly kept dead-center. I can remember how it sounded when I shot Garry from deep within Mt. Baldy Pipeline — 10 o’clock or so at 4 p.m. some Friday (probably) approaching two decades in the rear-view and dead set on forward momentum.

A little closer to home, Greg Siegfried’s zine Need No Problem was a mainstay of our quaint, little Southeast Alabama skate scene. Hailing from Ozark, Greg was the first of us to skate and is still going strong. Need No Problem chronicled the comings and goings of ramps and spots and those who rode them not only in Ozark, but all over the Southeast.

Inspired by GSD’s The Best of Skate Fate book, Greg recently compiled all of the issues of Need No Problem into one volume. Like all of these collections, it’s a compilation of snapshots from an era that has long passed, the current incarnations of same having moved online years ago.

I have toyed with the idea of compiling my zines into a single volume, but alas having not been as diligent as Rodger Bridges, I am missing many issues. Mike Daily is putting together an Aggro Rag collection, which will totally rule… Anyway, I cannot overstate the importance of the experience of trading and making zines. As I said in Generation F, “Those first issues were the first steps on a path I still follow” (p. 117). Still true.

The Written World: William Gibson’s Bohemia

I’ve been weathering the wilds of William Gibson quite a bit lately. I’ve been reading several books by and about him and his work for months now. Having just finished the Bigend trilogy —  Pattern Recognition (2003), Spook Country (2007), and Zero History (2010) — and finally chewing through Distrust That Particular Flavor (2012), I am engrossed in the greys of the Gibsonian. But, even if you’re not obsessed with his work, you’re immersed in his world. As novelist Luke Monroe put it to Gibson on Twitter recently, “of all the speculative fiction authors, why did you have to get it right? I love your work, but now we are living it.”

William Gibson at Powell's Books in Portland (photo by Dave Allen)

His pre-cog abilities, the ones he used to predict and project the personal computer’s connectivity and utter ubiquity, make the writing in his most recent, present-tense trilogy so completely dead-on. Why does the world now look more like a William Gibson novel than one by Arthur C. Clarke? Gibson’s friend and cyberpunk peer Bruce Sterling explains:

Because he was looking at things that Clarke wasn’t looking at. Clarke was spending all his time with Wernher von Braun, and Gibson was spending all his time listening to Velvet Underground albums and haunting junk stores in Vancouver. And, you know, it’s just a question of you are what you eat. And the guy had a different diet than science fiction writers that preceded him (quoted in Miller, 2007, p. 344).

Even as some wish he would return to the future and others marvel at his prescience in the present, Gibson’s journey to this particular now hasn’t been a direct path. Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture (University of Chicago Press, 2006) helps map the minutia.

Turner’s book traces the path of Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, Howard Rheingold, and the rest of the Whole Earth Network from the actual commune to the virtual community, showing how their offbeat past informed our online present. Turner writes that they “imagined themselves as part of a massive, geographically distributed, generational experiment. The world was their laboratory; in it they could play both scientist and subject, exploring their minds and their bodies, their relationships to one another, and the nature of politics, commerce, community, and the state. Small-scale technologies would serve them in this work. Stereo gear, slide projectors, strobe lights, and, of course, LSD all had the power to transform the mind-set of an individual and to link him or her through invisible ‘vibes’ to others” (p. 240). Gibson dropped out and tuned in as well, but once he and the other cyberpunks moved on to trying to envision the 21st century, many of their like-minded, counterculture contemporaries were trying to build it. As Gibson told Wired in 1995, “I think bohemians are the subconscious of industrial society. Bohemians are like industrial society, dreaming.”

Gibson continues:

Punk was the last viable bohemia that we’ve seen, perhaps the last bohemian movement of all time. I’m afraid that bohemians will eventually come to be seen as a byproduct of the industrial civilization; and if we’re in fact at the end of industrial civilization, there may be no more bohemians. That’s scary. It’s possible that commercialization has become so sophisticated that it’s no longer possible to do that bohemian thing.

I put this question to Malcolm Gladwell years ago, the question of youth culture’s commodification, and he responded, “Teens are so naturally and beautifully social and so curious and inventive and independent that I don’t think even the most pervasive marketing culture on earth could ever co-opt them.” Gibson is not so optimistic, or he wasn’t in 1995. Here he talks about the grunge thing, which by that time had had a very public and much-debated commercial co-opting:

Look what they did to those poor kids in Seattle! It took our culture literally three weeks to go from a bunch of kids playing in a basement club to the thing that’s on the Paris runways. At least, with punk, it took a year and a half. And I’m sad to see the phenomenon disappear.

Perhaps this says more about where Gibson’s head was at the time than it does about the creativity of the youth. After all, we’ve seen plenty of cool things happen in the last seventeen years, and Gibson was writing Idoru (1996), one of his darker visions of modern culture, saturated with multi-channel, tabloid television. His later work is beset by a blunter approach.

When she wrote about things, her sense of them changed, and with it, her sense of herself. — William Gibson, Spook Country.

Even at his darkest, Gibson is still cool. I have to say that Spook Country is my favorite of his novels. Where others are more action-packed or visionary, Spook Country is all subtlety and surface. He told Kodwo Eshun in 1996, “There’s a very peculiar world of literature that doesn’t exist which you can infer from criticism. Sometimes when I’ve read twenty reviews of a book I’ve written, there’ll be this kind of ghost book suggested…  And I wonder about that book, what is that book they would have wanted and it’s a book with no surfaces. It’s all essence.” Spook Country may be the closest anyone gets to writing that ghost book, and it’s just so… cool.

‘Twas not always the case. Gibson explains:

When I started to write science fiction, I knew I was working in a genre that was traditionally deeply deprived of hipness. I went looking for ways to import as much rock-and-roll aesthetic into science fiction as was possible. Going back and listening to Steely Dan’s lyrics, for instance, suggested a number of ways to do that. It seemed that there was a very hip, almost subversive science fiction aesthetic in Donald Fagen’s lyrics which not many people have picked up on. But there’s other stuff — David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs album, which has this totally balls-out science fiction aesthetic going. The Velvet Underground, early Lou Reed — that was important. I thought, OK, that’s the hip science fiction of our age, and so I’m going to try to write up to that standard, rather than trying to write up to Asimov.

Keep that in mind: Every step is a step on a path. And every step is informed by the one before it. You are what you eat, so eat well, my friends.

References:

Eshun, Kodwo. (1996, November). William Gibson in Dialogue with Kodwo Eshun: The Co-evolution of Humans and Machines. Unpublished Interview.

Gibson, William. (2007). Spook Country: A Novel. New York: Putnam, p. 171.

Miller, P. D. (2007). Bruce Sterling: Future Tense. In R. Christopher (ed.), Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes. Seattle, WA: Well-Red Bear, pp. 329-346.

Turner, Fred. (2006). From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

van Bakel, Rogier. (1995, June). Remembering Johnny: William Gibson on the making of Johnny Mneumonic. Wired, 3.06.

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Apologies to Andy Feenberg for stealing his title for this piece, and to Dave Allen for stealing his picture of Bill.

Terminal Philosophy: A Cultural History of Airports

My dad is an air traffic controller, so I’ve grown up with a special relationship with airports. These grounded waystations are like family members, some close siblings, some distant cousins. Is there a more interstitial space than an airport? It is the most terminally liminal area: between cities, between flights, between appointments, between everything. The airport is a place made up of on-the-ways, not-there-yets, missed-connections. The airport is a place made up of no-places.

Above SFO (photo by Brady Forrest)

In the late 1970s, Brian Eno attempted to sonically capture the in-between feeling of being in a airport. He’d already started making “unfinished” or ambient music, but this was his first with a specific, spatial focus. I seem to remember conflicting reports of where Eno came up with the idea for airport music, but he told Stephen Colbert that he was in a beautiful, new airport in Cologne and everything was lovely except for the music. “What kind of music ought to be in an airport? What should we be hearing here?” Eno says he thought at the time. “I thought that most of all, that you wanted music that didn’t try to pretend that you weren’t going to die on the plane.”

In a recent interview in The Believer, Laurie Anderson talks about the in-between of airports and Alain de Botton’s book A Week at the Airport (Profile, 2009), in which he explores Heathrow airport:

Because you go through Heathrow or any airport and you go, What’s behind that hollow cardboard wall? And he decided to find out, so he spent time there, and every time I’ve been through Heathrow since then, I know what’s behind those walls. The way the whole airport shakes every time an airplane lands, you’re like, ‘Am I in a structure or just a diagram of a structure?’ You’re not really sure. Added to the fact that there are no clocks there, either, so you’re sort of lost in this flimsy world, which is the way they would like to keep it.

In Christopher Schaberg’s The Textual Life of Airports (Continuum Books, 2012) he explores the texts of these structures, structures whose flimsy architecture veils stories of spaces in between public and private, screening and secreting. They’re not home and they’re not hotels. Schaberg reads airports as texts to be read, but he also looks at the very idea of reading in airports, which is a common practice. Where else do you get stuck that there’s almost always a bookstore nearby? Ironic that we need the forced downtime of a long flight or layover to do something so rewarding, and I’m speaking for myself as much as anyone as I look forward to that time and meticulously compile what it is I will read while traveling.

Schaberg’s travels through the texts of airports include many actual texts about flying, but also his time working in an airport. Inevitably, 9/11 plays a major part in these texts and his reading of them. If nothing else, that day affected us all when it comes to air travel. Everything from Steven Speliberg’s Terminal (Dreamworks, 2004) to Don Delillo’s Falling Man (Scribner, 2007) runs through Schaberg’s screening machine. It’s an amazingly subtle analysis of a very disruptive event.

“Most of us want to reach our destination as quickly and safely as possible,” writes Alastair Gordon in Naked Airport (University of Chicago Press, 2008; p. 4), which Ian Bogost mentioned in our 2010 Summer Reading List. The book is a cultural history of airport structures. His approach is starkly different from Schaberg’s, taking a distinctly historical view from 1924 to 2000 and how each of these eras dealt with the structure of airports qua airports. Gordon’s text is definitive, taking into account how historical events shaped the built environment of flight through every era. Everything from Roosevelt’s New Deal to 1960’s stewardess wear figures in the story. Naked Airport is a seductive, secret history of a common structure.

Books are always a good idea when traveling via airplane, but I urge you to consider these two texts the next time you leave home. They will enlighten your flight (and your in-betweens) in more ways than one.

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Here’s the clip of Brian Eno on The Colbert Report from November 10, 2011 [runtime: 6:27], in which he briefly discusses Music for Airports:

References:

Botton, Alain de (2009). A Week at the Airport. London: Profile Books.

Gordon, Alastair. (2008). Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Revolutionary Structure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schaberg, Christopher. (2012). The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight. New York: Continuum Books.

Stern, Amanda. (2012, January). Being an Artist is a Totally Godlike Thing to Do–And I Have a God Complex: An Iterview with Laurie Anderson. The Believer, 10(1).