Belief in aliens is often used as a trope on television and movies to signify instability or insanity. The hundreds of accounts available consist largely of unverifiable evidence and arguments that are shaky at best. Many of the reporters of alien phenomena seek to find them. Their seeking is “wishful thinking” in the words of Carl Jung (1964, p. 69). Yet, in his one book on the subject, Jung (1978) admits that “a purely psychological explanation is illusory, for a large number of observations point to natural phenomenon, or even a physical one” (p. 132). “Something is seen, but we don’t know what,” he adds (p. 136). The witnesses fall into a few distinct categories: those prone to fantasy and self-delusion (of course), those who are awake and outdoors at odd hours (security staff and police officers), and those attuned to the skies (pilots and air traffic controllers). My dad is one of the latter:
Me: How long have you been working in air traffic?
Dad: 43 years total.
Me: Have you ever seen a UFO?
Dad: Not that I can document, but I’ve seen a couple of things I had no other explanation for other than maybe a reflection of light.
The best way to prepare for the future is to keep an eye on the sky. That’s where everything else is not. Meanwhile, information pours invisibly across its friendly expanse, and it is up to us to absorb as much of it as our systems can tolerate. — Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Other Planets
The descriptions in the many reports I’ve read seem either embellished or evasive, imbued with insistence depending on how much the witness wants to believe. There’s just no way to tell if anyone has actually seen anything. The very designation “unidentified flying object” is so ambiguous as to be nearly useless. The Condon Report (1969), the culmination of all of the Air Force’s investigations into so-called sightings (e.g., Project Sign, Project Grudge, Project Blue Book, etc.), defines a UFO as follows:
An unidentified flying object is here defined as the stimulus for a report made by one or more individuals of something seen in the sky (or an object thought to be capable of flight but seen when landed on earth) which the observer could not identify as having ordinary natural origin, and which seemed to him [sic] sufficiently puzzling that he [sic] undertook to make a report of it… (p. 9).
In filing the report, one is saying that the sighting was “sufficiently puzzling” enough to file the report. It’s not so much defining what a UFO is as it’s defining what filing the report means. The Air Force either took the reports seriously enough or just received so many of them that they had to make them the subject of several official projects. Ex-Project Blue Book member Fritz Werner (not his real name) said in an interview that Blue Book existed because the Air Force “was getting too much publicity and there were too many people, other than official people seeing things and reporting them” (quoted in Randle, 1995, p. 58).
Some such reporters, as in the case of cults like Heaven’s Gate, build religions around their search for truth. Balch and Taylor’s germinal 1976 Psychology Today article “Salvation in a UFO” describes Heaven’s Gate members as “metaphysical seekers”: “Before joining [Heaven’s Gate], members of the UFO cult had organized their lives around the quest for truth. Most defined themselves as spiritual seekers” (p. 60).
In Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion (NYU Press, 2014), Benjamin E. Zeller concurs. In and out of other such groups before settling with Heaven’s Gate, the founders and members could all be described as seekers. Zeller’s study of his subject is through religious scholarship. Contra the media’s reports of Heaven’s Gate’s mass suicides in March of 1997, Zeller writes, “Heaven’s Gate emerged out of two theological worlds: Evangelical Christianity and the New Age movement, particularly the element of the New Age movement concerned with alien visitation and extraterrestrial contact. The movement’s leaders and members certainly drew from a broad array of influences, including secular ufology, science fiction, and conspiracy theories, in addition to their religious influences. Yet ultimately the group’s theology was a Christian one, as read through a New Age interpretive lens” (p. 65). The New Age aspect included the belief that in synchronized suicide, they were to board a UFO following the Hail-Bopp comet to salvation.
Where Jung saw the UFO phenomenon as seekers longing for a more complete life, Michael Heim (1998) sees it as “technology sickness” (p. 182). Heim (1993) posited Alternate World Syndrome (AWS): The switching between virtual and real worlds highlights the merging of technology with the human species, an extremely alien feeling we have yet to assimilate. It’s the ontological jet lag that comes from visiting or envisioning another, alien world. Heim (1998) writes, “The fascination and pain of the UFO phenomenon shows us only the first glimpse of our ultimate merger with technology” (p. 197).
From merging with technology to escaping the end of the world, The Secret Space Age (Adventures Unlimited Press, 2014) tells the story of a parallel space program bent on abandoning Earth before the Apocalypse. The book follows the controversy behind Alternative Three (1977), a film that supposedly shows the development of alternative settlements on the Moon and Mars. Written with the language and excitement of a senior thesis, The Secret Space Age is a fun romp through conspiracy theories of all kinds. It’s less about aliens coming here and more about our leaving. As Michael Heim (1998) puts it, “What a thrill to feel the tug of war on the thin thread of shared belief!” (p. 174). A tug of war indeed: Out for some person-on-the-street verisimilitude on the reported sightings at O’Hare International in 2007, WGN Reporter Juan Carlos landed a minute and a half with this seeker of truth:
Balch, Robert W. & Taylor, David. (1976). Salvation in a UFO. Psychology Today, 10(5), 58-60.
Heim, Michael. (1993). The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality. New York: Oxford University Press.
Heim, Michael. (1998). Virtual Realism. New York: Oxford University Press.
Jung, Carl G. (1964). Man and His Symbols. New York: Bantam.
Jung, Carl G. (1978). Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Mooney, Ted. (1981). Easy Travel to Other Planets. New York: Ballantine Books, p. 74.
Philips, Olav. (2015). The Secret Space Age. Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press.
Randle, Kevin D. (1995). A History of UFO Crashes. New York: Avon Books.
Zeller, Benjamin E. (2014). Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion. New York: NYU Press.
William Gibson’s first and most celebrated novel was published 30 years ago. I first read Neuromancer (Ace, 1984) in the fall of 1999, halfway between here and there. I had just dropped out of graduate studies at the University of Georgia’s Artificial Intelligence program and was trying to figure out what to do next. In the meantime, I was running the interview website that would eventually become my first book. Since those inauspicious beginnings, William Gibson has always been at or near the top of my most-wanted interviews.
It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future. — William Gibson
In lieu of a face-to-face sit-down with The Man, Patrick A. Smith has compiled interviews with Gibson from most of his career. Thanks to interviewers asking many of the same questions over the years, these Conversations with William Gibson (University Press of Mississippi, 2014) run over and over the same ground, and many are interesting in spite of—and some because of—that. Twenty-three interviews being conducted by different people intermittently over about as many years often gives what would be the same question a new answer. Moreover, there are a few absolutely essential reads included: Andy Diggle and Iain Ball’s previously unpublished talk with Gibson from 1993, Edo van Belkom’s obscure 1997 interview, and Alex Dueboen’s interrogation of Gibson’s writing process from 2007. Also, the 30-page David Wallace-Wells interview originally published in The Paris Review #197 in 2011 is probably the best interview with Gibson anywhere—Kodwo Eshun’s unpublished 1996 interview notwithstanding.
Regardless, Gibson’s insights abound. Like his last book, Distrust That Particular Flavor (Putnam Adult, 2012), this one collects its pieces from across the web and print publications: websites, magazines, and zines, some out of print and a few never printed before. Both books are huge steps in revealing the many deep and relevant thoughts of a man mainly known for only a few big ones. Here are several from these conversations:
1997: “To me, ambivalence seems the only sane response [to technology]. Technophobia doesn’t work, and neither does technophilia. So you don’t want to be a nerd, and you don’t want to be a Luddite, you have to try to straddle the fence and just make constant decisions” (p. 133).
1999: “I think Brian Eno‘s right in defining culture as everything we do that we don’t absolutely need to do… I look at what people are doing—particularly if they’re doing it passionately—that they don’t need to do” (p. 149).
1999: “To the extent that I can still believe in Bohemia, which I think is important to me in some way that I don’t yet really understand, to the extent that I still believe in that, I have to believe that there are viable degrees of freedom inherent if not realized in interstitial areas” (p. 154).
1999: “Where is our new stuff going to come from? What we’re doing pop culturally is like burning the rain forest. The biodiversity of pop culture is really, really in danger. I didn’t see it coming until a few years ago, but looking back it’s very apparent” (p. 158).
2007: “In those early days of broadcast television, you were a little kid walking around and holding these two realities at the same time in your head” (p. 185).
2011: “Cities look to me to be our most characteristic technology. We didn’t really get interesting as a species until we became able to do cities—that’s when it all got really diverse, because you can’t do cities without a substrate of other technologies” (p. 222).
My to-read stack also grew a book or several after reading these interviews. Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Other Planets (FSG, 1981) and Manny Farber’s Negative Space (Studio Vista, 1971) are mentioned several times, along with Thomas Pynchon, Dashiell Hammett, Bruce Sterling, and J. G. Ballard.
Speaking of Pynchon, Gibson has always cited him as an influence, rebutting claims of his following Philip K. Dick. Given Gibson’s recent flirtation with the recent past, Pynchon’s latest, Bleeding Edge (Penguin, 2013), reads more like it was influenced by Gibson’s last trilogy than the other way around. I loved the way Gibson was able to describe our present like it was/is science fictional (proving the point that he, Frederick Jameson, and others have made about “futuristic” science fiction actually being about the moment in which it was written), but it’s good to see him projecting again. I’ve read all of his books since taking the plunge 15 years ago, and I recently reread that first one. I am back in graduate school and glad to be able to read another.
The Peripheral (Putnam Adult, 2014) leaps ahead again, the 22nd century making up at least one of the worlds in its pages. So far it feels more light than dark, but that may just be his lulling me into it with his trademark descriptions with sparse details, gaping breadth with needle-focused minutiae. Without giving too much away, I will say that it reads more like Neuromancer than it does Spook Country (my favorite of all of his novels). It has the giddy unease of the former tempered by the veteran hand of the latter. It’s both energy and nuance. Parsing Gibson’s paragraphs is a challenge again—and that much more fun for it.
William Gibson white-out portrait by Roy Christopher. 
Before I became a certified, book-carrying reader, I dabbled in short stories. I had tried diving headlong, headstrong into novels, but I couldn’t keep up. I’d start one before bed, not read for a few nights, and end up lost when I returned. I wouldn’t be able to hold it all in my head. I’d lose the plot, the characters, and my momentum.
The solution I found at the time was reading short stories. I came across a mention of Harlan Ellison‘s Angry Candy (Houghton Mifflin, 1988) in Scott Davidson’s GUS zine, and I went looking. I found a copy at a long-since-defunct used bookstore on 84 East in Wicksburg, Alabama. After falling asleep to speculative tales like “Escapegoat,” “On the Slab,” “Laugh Track,” and the post-print “The Region Between,” I gained an extreme admiration for the brevity with which Ellison was able to boil my brain.
After devouring more of Ellison and the science-fiction stories in OMNI, I eventually moved on to longer forms. My respect for the short story never wavered though. Now that Ellison writes more litigation than literature, I’ve come across several other adept authors of the shorter form worthy of mention. Summer might be the time for longer reads, but I still find myself pulling back to graze.
Most recently, Leaving the Sea: Stories (Knopf, 2014) by Ben Marcus, whose last novel, The Flame Alphabet (Knopf, 2012), is one of my favorite reads of any kind in the past few years. I’m only just diving into Leaving the Sea, but his previous story collection, The Age of Wire and String (Dalkey Archive, 1995), stays by my bedside. Though much more sparse than anything he’s written in the nearly twenty years since, its inspiration is endless.
In Pump Six and Other Stories, Paolo Bagigalupi (Night Shade Books, 2010), author of the fabulous The Windup Girl (Night Shade Books, 2010), is able to write in times and places that do not exist, yet exist all around us—including the odd ontology of The Windup Girl (see “The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man” in this collection). These are eerily adjacent possibles, and like the best science-fiction authors (I’m thinking specifically of Sterling and Gibson—see their collections, and A Good Old-Fashioned Future and Burning Chrome, respectively—as well as the aforementioned Ellison), he seems to be reporting back from them.
I’ve spent the last couple of years corresponding with Brian McFarland. Scarcely a day goes by that we don’t volley several email threads. McFarland runs the Cursor-powered, indie-book publisher Red Lemonade, which is more of a publishing platform than a traditional imprint. It’s a community effort. So far they’ve unleashed Happy Talk by Richard Melo, Zazen by Vanessa Veselka, Follow Me Down by Kio Stark, The Sovereignties of Invention by Matthew Battles, and Someday This Will Be Funny, as well as several others, by Lynne Tillman. I asked publishing gadfly and Cursor boss Richard Nash how he came to work with McFarland. “It was a combination of three things really,” he told me, “his curiosity about non-traditional writing, his passion for doing things differently, and his eagerness to connect. I think I also wanted someone from outside the existing world of publishing, someone who would approach it knowing almost nothing of the status-quo ante. Fresh fresh fresh!”
“Three times fresh” is exactly how I’d describe the stories in The Sovereignties of Invention (Red Lemonade, 2012) by Matthew Battles. With a stream-of-consciousness recording device, the books title tract, “The Sovereignties of Invention,” is sort of a “Funes, the Memorious” for the iPod set (iFunes?), a pocket-size external harddrive for the mind’s every moment. As that one, “The Dogs in the Trees,” “The Manuscript of Belz,” “Camera Lucida,” and “I After the Cloudy Doubly Beautifully” all illustrate, the nominal number of pages (the whole book barely breaks the 100-page mark) needed for Battles to rearrange my mind and the world it’s in is simply amazing and reminiscent of my initial experiences with Harlan Ellison and short fiction in general. It even spawned its own book of reader responses.
All of the above is to suggest that the short story can possess all the complexity or potential for impact as its longer counterparts. If you’re not currently a big reader, one of these collections may be just the door you’ve been looking for.
Special thanks to Scott Davidson for championing Harlan Ellison way back when, to Ashley Crawford for the tip on Ben Marcus, and to Brian McFarland for so many emails, links, and laughs.
As school finally releases its grip on our attention and summer eases in around us, it’s time to peruse book pages for pleasure. If you’re like me, you’re still working through stuff from last year’s list. As my friend Kristin Ross tweeted recently, “Lately when I think about my mortality, the primary sadness I feel is in regards to all the books on my ‘to-read’ shelf.” We may never get to them all, but here are 2014’s summer recommendations.
This year’s list boasts newcomers Christopher Schaberg, Brian McFarland, and Alice Marwick, as well as veteran Summer Reading Listers Ashley Crawford, Lance Strate, Mark Amerika, Brad Vivian, Lily Brewer, Peter Lunenfeld, Alex Burns, danah boyd, Steve Jones, Zizi Papacharissi, Dominic Pettman, Benjamin Bratton, and myself. As usual, unless otherwise noted, the book links will lead you to the book’s page on the Powell’s site, the greatest bookstore on the planet.
I’ve picked up some second hand books that I intend to enjoy this summer, including two from Ralph Waldo Emerson. One is a stray volume of his collected works that combines two of his major publications, The Conduct of Life and Society and Solitude (Macmillan, 1910). The other is Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays and Journals (Programmed Classics, 1968), selected and with an introduction by Lewis Mumford (which alone is worth the price of purchasing the book). And then there’s Understanding Understanding (Harper & Row, 1974), by Humphrey Osmond, with John A. Osmond and Jerome Agel, which I am understandably curious about.
For poetry, I can’t wait to delve into the long awaited volume from Dale Winslow, Tinderbox (NeoPoiesis, 2013). And in graphic novels, there’s Volume 21 of The Walking Dead, real brain food that I’ll no doubt gobble up in one sitting when it comes out in a few weeks.
The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell (Penguin, 2013) charts “a year’s watch in nature”—the author goes out to the same small plot of forest every day over the course of a year, and reflects on being (and non-being) at myriad scales. Haskell calls this place the “mandala”: seen in a certain way, it’s like a microcosm of the universe. The book reminded me of object-oriented ontology put into practice. In other words, it’s a work of praxis: an experiment in constraint and wonder, with the fruits (or more precisely, flora and fauna) of this endeavor recorded in sprightly prose.
But what if the mandala were not a spot in the woods, but a color? And what if the temporal frame were not a year but ongoing, indeterminate and blurry? Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (Wave Books, 2009) reflects on blue hues across literary, artistic, and philosophical registers, and as the color shoots through her own life in ways that are at turns visceral and vaporous, ambient and affective. The book unfolds as a sequence of playfully (il)logical propositions, at once echoing Wittgenstein while venturing into new poetic territory.
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has taken the impulse to color in another direction. His searching edited collection Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green (University of Minnesota Press, 2014) does exactly what it’s title says: It pushes way beyond traditional “green” readings of nature, environment, and ecology. The chapters find deep reservoirs of semiotic value and biotic interplay across the spectrum of colors, reaching into perceptual zones as seemingly unnatural and alien as x-ray and ultraviolet. Collectively, this book comprises a tour de force that could be the core of an entire seminar on cutting edge environmental theory. (I plan to adopt the book this way in an environmental humanities seminar at Loyola University New Orleans in the near future.)
Of course a more traditional way to go about ecological thinking is to ground it in place. Jim Harrison’s latest collection of novellas, The River Swimmer (Grove Press, 2014), revolves around my own home region of northern Michigan. The two novellas in this collection (“The Land of Unlikeness” and “The River Swimmer”) are paragons of the form; even as their plot lines unravel typical (for Harrison) male fantasies and nativist wish images, the stories are gently hilarious, disturbingly violent, softly sublime, and eerily haunting. Harrison has a way with the novella that exhibits incredible formal control and concision, even as the stories sprawl out to epic and even magical proportions. Throughout each story, the aura of Michigan seeps through details as striking and elusive as the spring marshy air, the texture of river currents, and rare bird calls.
Another geography I recently found myself reading about, somewhat unexpectedly, was New York City. Thomas Beller’s new biography of J.D. Salinger (subtitled The Escape Artist; New Harvest, 2014) suggests that the landscape and atmosphere of New York shaped Salinger’s writing and consciousness to a large degree. I don’t know the city terribly well, and I have not read a single work of fiction by Salinger (I know, I know!), but the fact that Beller manages to lure me into and guide me through these intertwined (and to me, unfamiliar) topographies speaks to a certain ecological acuity present in the book. But it’s an eccentric ecology, attuned to human culture and the patterns and quirks of things like publishing, personae, and literary production. To call this biography ‘ecological’ may sound strange, but it’s precise in the sense that Beller breaks from a simple, linear-narrative biography and develops something more networked, something more (to recover a theoretical term perhaps overused but still apt here) rhizomatic.
I read two kinds of books during the summer: academic books that get me jazzed about research, and anything page-turnery I can read on my Kindle while lying around in the sun.
I’m in an academic book club and by far our favorite title this year was Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (University of Chicago Press, 2014). It’s a mind-blowing ethnography of young black men in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia, and how the constant intrusion of the police and penal system systematically undermines their familial and romantic relationships. Goffman is a really gifted writer, and her book not only hammers home the horrific social impact of American mass incarceration of African-American youth, but includes a methods chapter where she discusses how living in a primarily black, masculine environment for six years affected her own subjectivity and relationship to academia. It’s the rare academic book I can’t put down and I would recommend it to anyone.
Goffman’s book has inspired me to finally read legal scholar Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2012) which tackles the same issues from a legal perspective. Alexander examines how today’s legal system has perpetrated systemic African-American disenfranchisement and inequality, much like the Jim Crow laws of years past.
In fiction, my favorite discovery of the year was the Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein. I’m a huge fan of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction, but I get very irritated by writers who can imagine a world with cybernetic augmentation, mass terraforming, etc. etc. but can’t get beyond run-of-the-mill patriarchy. Kirstein’s Steerswomen are scholars who travel around their realm, making detailed maps and observations about the natural environment. This, of course, deeply appealed to me as a social scientist, and I loved seeing Rowan, the chief steerswoman, use her version of the scientific method to puzzle through the various trials and tribulations that come her way. While the setting seems at first to be your typical medieval fantasy world, Kirstein expertly reveals throughout the series that it may be more than it seems. A fantastic, engaging series that is simultaneously nerdy and feminist. I can’t recommend these books highly enough, especially now that the rights have reverted to Kirstein and she’s released them all as ebooks.
I’m also planning on reading the second volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, which is also speculative fiction but from an almost Lovecraftian perspective. The first book, Annihilation (FSG Originals, 2014), described a team of scientists sent out to explore the abandoned Area X. Why it was abandoned, who commissioned the expedition, and what happened to the previous teams remains a mystery, but the sense of dread that sets in as you watch the biologist, the anthropologist, the psychologist, and the surveyor—all women—navigate the uncertainty of the landscape. Without putting too fine a point on it, this book creeped me the hell out. The second book, Authority (FSG Originals, 2014), focuses on the institutional apparatus that supports the expeditions, which doesn’t sound terrifying but I’m hoping doesn’t lose the momentum of the first.
Other than that, I’ll be finally trying to finish The Goldfinch (Little, Brown & Co., 2013), which is like half of a really good book interspersed with a lot of boring short stories, catching up on various mystery, sci-fi, and dystopian series that have new books out, and perhaps making a dent in my “to read” PDF folder. Preferably while out in the sun.
Krysztof Michalski’s The Flame of Eternity (Princeton University Press, 2013) provides a reexamination and new interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy and the central role that the concepts of eternity and time, as he understood them, played in it.
If you read this as a confused teenager seeking power amid your angst, this book will remind you of the joy and freedom that was embedded within all that poetry. While reading I had that rare joy (that only books can provide) of remembering a former self experiencing a book and transforming that experience by re-visiting the text again. That’s not so clear, but Krysztof Michalski had the same fascination with passages that confounded my younger self- and here I was years later remembering that confusion and achieving understanding of it many years later. A powerful read and the author does a nice job of making difficult concepts clear.
This summer, I’m studying various books on the subject of witnessing. Last year, I researched treatises on time and politics and, presently, I’m seeking to analyze the rhetoric of witnessing in light of temporality and the politics of time. To that end, my summer reading list features works that approach witnessing from unconventional angles and, in so doing, attempt to understand it in novel ways.
Kelly Oliver’s Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (University of Minnesota Press, 2001) illustrates one of the best features of her writing in general: her ability to connect canonical philosophical concepts and lineages to the concrete realities of public and political affairs. Here, she relates the Hegelian politics of recognition to conventional humanitarian, moral, or political discourse that assumes one witnesses in order to identify the basis for some common humanity and historical experience. Oliver helpfully pushes our approach to witnessing beyond recognition, in whatever form, as its guiding telos.
In this context, I also plan to closely study Jacques Derrida’s Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan (Fordham University Press, 2005). This text is reputed to feature many of Derrida’s customary deconstructive topoi-my interest resides, in particular, in the extent to which that his reflections throughout Sovereignties are said to echo his remarks on impossibility and possibility elsewhere regarding related topics-specifically, forgiveness and mourning. That is, I’m interested in his understanding of how the impossibility of something like witnessing, forgiveness, or mourning might nonetheless accomplish productive ethical and political work.
Finally, I’ll be preoccupied with Marianne Hirsch’s The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust (Columbia University Press, 2012). In this text, Hirsch takes up a line of thought that others have begun to explore in their own scholarship (notably Celia Lury in Prosthetic Culture and Alison Landsberg in Prosthetic Memory): namely, the degree to which one can remember someone else’s memories. Many discourses of witnessing presuppose that memories may somehow be affectively transferred from survivors or participants in history to future generations who did not witness the original events. This kind of work necessarily involves reflections on the communication of memory via literature, art, and media while raising important questions about the ethics and politics of witnessing.
I graduated from my SAIC Art History graduate program last May, and within the first 25 days of said graduation, starved for novels, I had read 15 novels, textbooks, and other non-fictions: I feel I have read all the great books already, but will continue to pursue others. Here is a representative sample of both.
After reading Lydia Davis’ remarkable collection of short stories in Varieties of Disturbance (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007), wherein one story she outlines a systematic, syntactical, and secretly heartbreaking analysis of 27 fourth graders’ get-well letters to a classmate Steven. I’ve dipped my toes in her The End of the Story from 1995, but so far have found it more depressing than my summer warrants. Especially when read alongside S. D. Chrostowska’s Permission (Dalkey Archive, 2013), written as multiple emails’ soliloquy with image attachments, I’ve found that contemporary fiction writing, for me, needs to be carefully vetted by the public before I set my eyes to it. However, learning from my mistake and in an ameliorative effort, Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies (Wesleyan, 2010) so far relieves me with strange, sparse, deadpan scans of the backs of books, discount cards, and “Wet Paint” signs, and the narrative is obscure, or rather clandestine, or maybe not even there, and refreshing. I’m tired of narratives.
With that said, despite his overwrought account of the failure of memory in the sleepy wake of post-WWII PTSD, W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (New Directions, 1999) records scattered memories of scenes as they come to the narrator, with images anchored within two lines of its antecedent. I hope the image and text in his The Emigrants (New Directions, 1997) is just as meticulously and personally designed when I begin it soon.
Christian Bok’s Crystallography (Coach House Books, 1999) inspired me toward Jacques Roubaud’s Mathematics (Dalkey Archive, 2012), but unfortunately in name only: Bok’s stupifyingly researched, fractal, picture poem on crystals and their study has eaten Roubaud for breakfast. Giving the latter a shot anyway, I thought his memoir on his mathematical academic career would be as cynical toward the academy as Barbara Browning’s detective(?) novel I’m Trying to Reach You (complete with screenshots of YouTube videos of, likely, the author herself in interpretive dance performances inspired by the death of Michael Jackson; Two Dollar Radio, 2012) and maybe even Chris Kraus’ memoir/erotica/art-history-laced-in-latex Video Green (Semiotext(e), 2004), but both Mathematics and Kraus’ novel Summer of Hate (Semiotext(e), 2012) have fallen short so far. I have high hopes anyway while finishing those and Roubaud’s The Loop (Dalkey Archive, 2009).
Finally and always already on my list are Sylvia Plath’s journals, Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, Jacob Bronowski’s works on science and its critics, and textbooks on our solar system’s planetary landscapes. Like the tradition set by Marianne Moore and the second law of thermodynamics, this female, like her Amazon shopping cart, is a chaos.
Summer reading this year will veer even further toward pleasure and away from work, and even more toward indulging my interests in popular music, I’m glad to say. In no particular order I’m looking forward to reading Romany and Tom: A Memoir, by Ben Watt, that promises to be a fascinating look at British music and life before the Beatles broke. For somewhat similar voyeuristic reasons, you might say, I’m planning to read Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home (Little, Brown & Co., 2014), for its chronicling of the home life of people at the center of 1980s literary London. Holly George-Warren’s biography of Alex Chilton, A Man Called Destruction (Viking Adult, 2014), is also on my list. I’ve only known the Chilton myths, so I’m looking forward to something a bit more journalistic about hiim. I’ve also got Lisa Robinson’s There Goes Gravity (Riverhead, 2014) on the list, for light reading and a laugh. To round out the music titles I’ve got Greg Kot’s, I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March up Freedom’s Highway (Scribner, 2014). The Staples family have a singular place in popular music that I hope Kot is able to contextualize. I also very much want to read Alain-Fournier’s The Lost Domain (Oxford University Press, 2014), that’s actually been an intention for a long time. As I look at it now, it’s quite an indulgent list, really, and that makes me quite happy to see.
My reading list for summer 2014 is made up of largely overlooked titles. In most cases, they are lesser-known works by well-known authors, both fiction and non-fiction. In a couple cases, it’s a chance for me re-visit some favorites that have strongly influenced my recent work. If any of you read any of these over the next few weeks and write something on it, send me a link.
J.G. Ballard Crepuscular Enclave (Picador, 2014): This posthumously-published novel takes place in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, occupied by British forces who live and work behind what is supposed to be the most impenetrable fortress ever devised (obviously modeled on the USA’s Green Zone in Baghdad). After the mysterious disappearance of several soldiers, none of which are officially listed on the base’s manifest, the camp Psychiatrist begins to suspect that the real purpose of the compound is not what it seems. With with two of her patients, awaiting dishonorable discharge for desertion, she makes a furtive pact to investigate what is on the other side of the “barrier.” In time they come realize that “every outside is an inside”and that the architecture of the fortified enclave is the same as a concentration camp.
Hiromi Matsui and Ken Nomo, editors, She Gets Confused (Flying Over the Dateline): Tokyo-Los Angeles Art & Architectural Practices, 1990-99 (Rizzoli, 2013): The catalog for this show featuring art and architectural practices that were based in both Los Angeles and Tokyo during the 1990s and whose work expresses influences from both sides of the Pacific. Of particular interest are extremely inventive “mobile multimedia” projects, experimental manga titles that strongly influenced on the Osaka School of typography, and a series of UCLA student projects for the Japanese space program. I remember with fascination the essays debating the controversy over the design competition for a Yukio Mishima memorial in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district (officially won by Angry Pineapple Now! after Studio Unit 731b withdrew in protest.) Purchase of the proposed site and construction of a memorial to the controversial right-wing Japanese poet, actor, body-builder, and political activist was provided by a local construction magnate, but outcry from Korean-American and Chinese-American Angelinos resulted in withdrawal of permits by the city. Amazing lenticular book cover design by APPPA.
Dr. Joseph Wang Programming Nanorobotics (O’Reilly, 2014): This introduction to programming essentials from O’Reilly Media books continues their excellent series of software/hardware primers in emerging programming fields. Nanorobotics has become a really interesting platform for design and development, especially in conjunction with standard 3D biotechnology tools. Autodesk’s systems are still the most widely used, including their prosumer iPad apps (like 123Gene and AutoProtein, which even my little boy can use to design DNA and print-to-order “biobricks”). I am more interested in what the new logic and behavior protocols can do (namely OOGL and NovoGenXL) especially in conjunction with Google’s Android Robotics OS. My previous work toying with nanotech skin-based sensing systems is something I would like to develop further for other surfaces with other machine behavior profiles.
Slavoj Žižek That Which is Not What it is Not (Punctum Books, 2014): I had a chance to spend some time with the intrepid Slovenian Philosopher earlier this summer at the European Graduate School in Switzerland, where we were both teaching. We had a memorable conversation about Jacques Lacan’s notion of “Lamella,” a kind of monstrous brainless undead asexually reproducing indestructible goop. Žižek has used the term in his reading of David Lynch films, as a substance that is horrific and uncanny. I pressed the point that as far as Astrobiology is concerned this kind of matter is pretty ordinary, and that the sorts of things that we take to be “normal” (having a face, inside the symbolic order, sexually reproducing, etc.) are really the bizarre and exceptional forms. He agreed with this (I think), and we discussed H.P. Lovecraft and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which somehow lead him to anecdotes about Stalin’s body double’s true height and why he liked the new Robocop more than the original. Apparently, he deals with the concept of Lamella at greater length in this short independently published book, and even manages to relate it to the Dave Eggers/Emily Gould collaboration, The Tweed and Tonic Diaries (a text so deeply horrible that neither of us could bear to read more than a few pages —on that we agreed).
Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (University of Chicago Press, 2014) blew me away. Through deeply embedded ethnographic work, Goffman illustrates how young black men must navigate the abusive nature of policing practices from their earliest years, forcing them to develop sophisticated strategies to achieve some sense of agency in an unfair world. This book is raw and brilliant, providing key insights into aspects of American inequality that aren’t fully understood by more privileged folks.
Another book that delighted me to no end is Robin Nagle’s Picking Up (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014), where she joins the New York City Department of Sanitation to better understand the often invisible infrastructure of waste collection that keeps our city functional. Did you know, for example, that more sanitation workers die on the job each year than policemen or firemen? And do you know the history of how NYC went from a site of filth to an impressively functional sanitation machine? This book will tell you this and more.
Most histories of the internet start with big tech companies. But if you dig deeper, there’s a more complex story. In the 1930s, the US government brought together leading artists like John Cage and the New Bauhaus folks alongside artistic organizations like MoMA and anthropologists like Margaret Mead to imagine what “democratic media” might look like in response to the “fascist media” of film. As Fred Turner beautifully documents in The Democratic Surround (University of Chicago Press, 2013), the communities that emerged around this helped imagine interactive technologies as we know them.
It’s easy to bash security theater when spending another day trying to navigate the TSA, but the US’s obsession with security isn’t just annoying; it’s downright dangerous. In Against Security (Princeton University Press, 2014), Harvey Molotch offers a series of case studies that shed light on how we used security to implement practices, policies, and infrastructure that fundamentally disenfranchises and harms the very people it’s designed to protect.
My publisher would probably murder me if I didn’t list my own book, published in February, among the list of key summer reading. It’s Complicated (Yale University Press, 2014) is an attempt to synthesize a decade’s worth of work into young people’s engagement with social technologies by responding to various fears and anxieties that enshroud discussions of youth. Kids do care about privacy. Bullying is more complicated than you think. The internet is not the great equalizer. And our online safety discussions are often a distraction to real risks youth face. More importantly, what teens are doing today is trying to reclaim a space of their own because we adults have made it so darn difficult for teens to socialize with their friends.
My bifurcated research into media art and media design trifurcated when I started looking at digital humanities as well, and with a long-standing project on the cultural history of Los Angeles, has now morphed, re-mixed, and metastasized into a weird beast that I no longer quite understand or recognize, but one that demands to be fed with bushels of books over summer breaks.
More than a decade ago I wrote an essay about speed-up called “25/8,” so I’m interested in Jonathan Crary’s take in 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (Verso, 2013). This book has been very present on my grad students’ bibliographies, and I want to catch up with them (an anxious mode of text-reception befitting precisely what I figure Crary will be discussing).
I read Lev Manovich’s Software Takes Command (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013) on-line over time as he posted various versions, but I want to sit down and take it in as a totality now that it’s been published in book form. The chapter on motion graphics is the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject, and the final version is copiously illustrated.
In co-writing Digital_Humanities (MIT Press, 2012), I had to come to grips with just how tenaciously literary scholars want to hold onto the field as “theirs,” even though it seems quite evident to me that DH is far more. That said, I want to look more deeply at two of the best from that side of the aisle, with a close reading of Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading (Verso, 2013) and a microanalysis of Matthew Jockers’ Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History (University of Illinois Press, 2013).
In a similar vein, I plan to dive into the catalogues from some major shows about LA architecture and design from the past year, with Wendy Kaplan’s California Design, 1930–1965: “Living in a Modern Way” from LACMA, the Getty’s Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940-1990 curated by Wim de Wit and Christopher James Alexander, and Never Built Los Angeles, which Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin organized for the A+D Museum.
Finally, I’ve decided that I want to read all of Ian Fleming’s original James Bond novels. There are only twelve of them, with two short story collections, written between 1951 and 1964. I probably should be reading them while drinking martinis (shaken but not stirred), but I’m an Angeleno, and it’s already hot outside, so I’ll be opting for cucumber-jalapeno margaritas instead.
Most of my summer reading will consist of canonical texts concerning “Eros & Civilization,” which is a new course I’ll be teaching at the New School for Social Research in the Fall. But when I manage to steal away from such agonistic Grand Narratives, I’ll be hopefully getting a chance to read the following:
Karl Ove Knausgaard My Struggle: Book 2 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014): Yes, obvious I know. But I found Book 1 as inexplicably compulsive as many others, and I’ve heard volume 2 is even more absorbing.
Eugene ThackerAn Ideal for Living (Gobbet Press, 2014): I read this techno-remix mind-melt in ms. form over ten years ago, and am keen to revisit it again, now that it’s been given a new life by Gobbet Press. A nice appetizer for Thacker’s incredibly transporting book on pessimism, which will hopefully come out in a year or so.
Eduardo Kohn How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (University of California Press, 2013): People I trust have been raving about this book for the past year, so I better catch up. Kohn seems to be doing something similar, yet different, from what Hugh Raffles did in his splendid book, In Amazonia (Princeton University Press, 2002).
Yuriko Furuhata Cinema of Actuality: Japanese Avant-Garde Filmmaking in the Season of Image Politics (Duke University Press, 2013): This book won a SCMS prize a year or so ago, and having read some of Yuri’s subsequent work-in-progress, this has rocketed to the top of the to-read pile. She uses specific sites to do astonishing historical revisions of interest to any scholars of critical media theory. Plus, I envy her virtuoso use of English.
Marguerite Yourcenar Two Lives and a Dream (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1988): Part of my ongoing project to read every word Yourcenar ever wrote, and remind the world that this remarkable woman needs to be rediscovered in a big way (a lá, the new marketing machine for Clarice Lispector). Truly humbling to be in the presence of such a brilliant and creative mind.
I have been reading Listening Publics by Kate Lacey (Polity, 2013), and am deeply regretting not having read it before turning in my own latest to Oxford University Press, Affective Publics: Sentiment and the New Political. It is a beautifully written and engaging book that reviews what form practices of listening took on in the past, and thus, makes us all reconsider what practices of listening mean for contemporary political cultures. I could not recommend more highly, especially to those interested in how newer media platforms can help revive tired civic habits of the past.
I also recently read and thoroughly enjoyed How Voters Feel by Stephen Coleman (Cambridge University Press, 2014), on what it means to feel like, rather than act like or think like a democratic citizen. Coleman examines how narratives, dreams, and memories inform performances of voting or non-voting, and what sorts of feelings about democracy and civic engagement these generate for people. The book focuses on what living in a democracy might feel like, rather than require of its citizens, and in so doing, it refocuses attention on the meaning of feelings for political engagement, without divorcing them from the organizing logic of rationality.
The Hybrid Media System: Political and Power (Oxford university Press, 2013) by Andrew Chadwick is another volume I recently finished and highly recommend, especially to those looking for a book to assign in basic courses on mass media (whatever the term may refer to these days), media systems, mass communication and new media, and all those courses that represent the core of our field. Having read this, many textbooks feel dated to me now. This volume describes the organization, logic, and function of contemporary media in immediate and engaging terms. It is a must read for all students of media, and interested parties in general.
Finally, I am trying to muster the energy to read Thomas Piketty’s much discussed Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Belknap Press, 2014). I have gone through the first chapter and had to ask myself whether all those who bought and pushed it to the top of best seller lists actually finished reading it. It is a very smart book, and one that had to be written, I am just not sure yet that the same issues have not been presented, in a slightly different contexts, by other social scientists already. I look forward to reading more, and more on this when I am done doing so. Happy reading!
Who has time to read? My world is one of continuous partial attention. Complicating matters is that I can no longer read anything without simultaneously writing something. Let’s call it riff-reading.
The best writing does absolutely nothing for me in the way of story, plot, character, authenticity, voice, setting or conventional meaning-making i.e. the predictable middle-brow or preprogrammed academic literary and theoretical styles that easily meet expectations. Rather, it immediately stimulates my muscle memory in a way my neurons never saw coming. Once the neurons are triggered and I am starting to go out of control, I too find myself writing-while-reading in the margins of my mind, iPhone, notepad, etc. What this means is that the best writing, the writing I come back to, is writing that awakens the writer-in-me, even if that writer is really anybody but me.
Fortunately, I often spend my summers in Portland, living and writing in my loft a mere six blocks away from Powell’s, arguably the best bookstore in America. My nightly visits to Powell’s open me up to books I might never have heard of were I to depend solely on the Internet or, worse, academic culture, to tell me what’s hot and what’s not. Which is why my summer reading is always an eclectic mix of the unexpected. This year is no different. These are the first books I have unearthed from the endless shelves that I immerse myself in:
Blake ButlerThree Hundred Million (Harper Perennial, 2014): Alongside Ben Marcus, Blake Butler has rapidly become one of my favorite authors of recent years. His last two forays, There Is No Year (Harper Perennial, 2011) and Sky Saw (Tyrant Books, 2012) were terrifying in scope and ambition. They were essentially abstractions, vivid, nightmarish images sown together with bloody twine to form shimmering, apocalyptic narratives. Three Hundred Million sounds like something of a departure for Butler. For one thing, judging by pre-publication blurbs, it appears as though he has veered into a more straight-forward approach (if that can ever be said of Butler!) – for the first time in his oeuvre he names characters – a psychopath called Gretch Gravey and a burnt-out cop called E.N. Flood. That fact alone suggests a more accessible narrative. But knowing Butler that’s a bit like describing Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night as a straight forward detective novel. I expect the unexpected.
David Cronenberg Consumed (Scribner, 2014): What’s not to be intrigued? He is one of the world’s most literary contemporary filmmakers, consuming and then exhuming, as it were, the works of the likes of Burroughs, Ballard and DeLillo for source material. As this is a first novel it will be intriguing to see if Cronenberg’s visual panache can be matched in the written word, but the themes are certainly suitably Cronenbergian: disease, depravity and conspiracy. Evidently the story of two journalists who become involved in the complexities surrounding a French philosopher’s death – it may be Umberto Eco on acid?
William GibsonThe Peripheral(Putnam, 2014): It’s rather impossible to know which direction Gibson is going to go in with this. Where Thomas Pynchon’s last outing, Bleeding Edge (Penguin, 2013), sounded like a precursor to some of Gibson’s recent speculations, this one is evidently back to the “far future” – which, with Gibson, probably means next year. The pre-pub blurb is certainly intriguing complete with veteran’s benefits for neural damage suffered from implants during time in an “elite Haptic Recon force,” Beta-testing a new game, where “Little bug-like things turn up,” but “it might also be murder.” Gibson, to date, has never failed to supply a decent narrative drive, although perhaps not as visionary as his first novel, he has an uncanny knack for picking themes that seem strangely relevant to our near-future(s).
Okwui Enwezor, Homi K. Bhabha, and Hilton Als Matthew Barney: River of Fundament (Skira Rizzoli, 2014): Whilst the other books listed here must go down as pleasure, this one is work-related as part of doctorial research where Harold Bloom’s American Religion meets Barney’s art, Ben Marcus’ novels and moments of David Lynch. Yeah, weird. But River of Fundament is an extraordinary film/artwork which I strongly recommend for those who do not have allergies to the extreme. Inspired in part by Norman Mailer’s Egyptian novel Ancient Evenings, his infamous classic that chronicled the passage of a narrator through the stations of death and reincarnation (here reinterpreted as Mailer’s own aspirations to be the Great American Novelist). Barney has outdone the Cremaster Cycle on many levels. If one likes the films of Lynch, Cronenberg, and the more extreme moments of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, River of Fundament is a must-see. Hopefully the main text by Okwui Enwezor will provide an insight into a baffling but brilliant project.
Michael Findley, Daniel Nielson, and Jason Sharman Global Shell Games: Experiments in Transnational Relations, Crime, and Terrorism (Cambridge University Press, 2014): The authors use an innovative experimental research design to investigate over 3,800 corporate service providers in 181 countries that establish anonymous shell corporations. These untraceable corporations are used for money laundering, covert financing, and offshore tax havens. One of the major findings is that corporate service providers located in major Western countries including the United States are more likely to flout international regulations of the World Bank and the Financial Action Task Force. The authors propose Transnational Experimental Relations as a new sub-discipline of international relations to conduct further research using field experiments.
Gordon Clark, Adam Dixon, and Ashby Monk Sovereign Wealth Funds: Legitimacy, Governance, and Global Power (Princeton University Press, 2013): In 2010 as the global financial crisis unfolded a new type of funds management emerged as a dominant force in international markets and financial media coverage: sovereign wealth funds. This rigorous study examines what sovereign wealth funds are, how they function in transnational economies, and includes case studies from Australia, Norway, Singapore, China, and the Gulf States. A model of how good academic research can dispel media hype cycles.
Thomas Piketty Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Belknap Press, 2014): Piketty’s multi-year research program is one of the sources for multi-country data on income inequality. This book became a bestseller in 2014; crossed into the financial and popular media; and ignited a backlash against Piketty’s data collection and policy suggestions. Rather than Karl Marx, Piketty’s research continues a tradition on social elites pioneered by Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, and most recently, Jeffrey A. Winters. The backlash against Piketty in part reflects an elite strategy of ‘wealth defense’ and civil oligarchical trends in the United States (Winters).
David Weil The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done To Improve It (Harvard University Press, 2014): Boston University professor Weil is now the Obama Administration’s first Wage and Hour Administrator. This confronting book on labor economics contrasts the asset and private equity style of management with the lives of independent contractors and outsourcing firms. Many of the trends that Weil identifies already apply to universities, and will continue to unfold over the next decade.
Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (W.W. Norton & Co., 2014): Brynjolfsson and McAfee continue a debate on technology shaped by Norbert Wiener (The Human Use of Human Beings) and Alvin Toffler (Future Shock). This book catalogues recent growth in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and related fields, and how these innovations might change workplaces in the next two decades. Brynjolfsson and McAfee contend that recent innovations will lead to societal transformations (Toffler), yet they may also create a new economic underclass (Wiener; Piketty; and Weil). A primer to critically interrogate the preferred futures of Bangalore and Silicon Valley.
Riccardo Rebonato and Alexander Denev Portfolio Management Under Stress: A Bayesian-Net Approach to Coherent Asset Allocation (Cambridge University Press, 2014): Modern Portfolio Theory faced critique after the 2007-09 global financial crisis. Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Nouriel Roubini emerged as superstar critics. This book develops a post-MPT approach to asset allocation and portfolio management that uses Bayesian nets: probabilistic models of belief networks. Rebonato and Denev’s insights and formal models articulate ways to deal with extreme events and risk management that has resonances with the therapeutic literature on post-traumatic growth and resilience.
Henrique Andrade, Bugra Gedik, and Deepak Turaga Fundamentals of Stream Processing: Application, Design, Systems and Analytics (Cambridge University Press, 2014): A decade ago business management literature hypothesized the emergence of real-time companies. SAP’s enterprise resource planning platform was one way. Tibco and Streambase’s complex event processing engines are another way. This book provides a conceptual and methodological overview of stream processing that deals with high-volume, real-time data streams – with sections on system architecture, development, analytics, and case studies. Stream processing is an example of Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s transformative technologies, and that benefit Piketty’s economic elites. For one application in financial services, see Yacine Ait-Sahalia and Jean Jacod’s High-Frequency Econometrics (Princeton University Press, 2014).
Jacob Shapiro The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations (Princeton University Press, 2013): During the Bush Administration’s so-called Global War on Terror the study of terrorist organizations was a ‘hot topic’ in security studies. This book is one of the best post-GWoT studies to combine agency theory with a careful study of internal documents from terrorist organizations. Shapiro identifies a dilemma: leadership need for control versus the need to be clandestine. His findings can also be read as a specialized form of Clayton M. Christensen’s influential Disruptive Innovation Theory, as applied to terrorist organizations.
Don Webb Through Dark Angles (Hippocampus Press, 2014): H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) influenced contemporary horror and weird fiction, films, and subcultures. This book collects the Lovecraftian-influenced short stories of Austin, Texas writer Don Webb. The short stories hint at Webb’s on-going practice-based research into the anthropology, linguistics, and sociology of operative magic (the Egyptian heka) as a liminal methodology to achieve, embody, and to cultivate Desire.
James H. Austin Meditating Selflessly: Practical Neural Zen (MIT Press, 2011): Over the past decade Austin has published a series of books on Zen and contemporary neuroscience. This book summarizes Austin’s research program, and offers guidance for mindfulness meditation practice. Rather than beliefs or doctrines Austin advises: “what you may glimpse are some of your brain’s innate resources” (p. xxiii). Austin’s latest book Zen-Brain Horizons: Towards a Living Zen (MIT Press, 2014) continues his personal research journey.
Lance Strate Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman’s Brave New World Revisited (Peter Lang, 2014): It’s high time that Neil Postman’s ideas were revisited, and, having studied under Postman himself, Lance Strate is the ideal scholar to do it. Media ecology as a perspective is more important now than ever. This is the source and the voice of its views in the 21st century. I’m looking forward to the upgrade.
Eugene Thacker An Ideal for Living (Gobbet Press, 2014) and In the Dust of This Planet [Horror of Philosophy, vol 1] (Zer0 Books, 2011): Eugene Thacker has been quietly building an impressively wide and weird body of work. An Ideal for Living is a deserved re-issue of the anti-novel he was working on during our 2006 interview. In the Dust of This Planet is Book One of his re-imagining of horror, philosophy, and their intersection. Both are worth a look. Or three.
Cinema is our most viable and enduring form of design fiction. More than any other medium, it lets us peer into possible futures projected from the raw materials of the recent past, simulate scenes based on new visions via science and technology, gauge our reactions, and adjust our plans accordingly. These visions are equipment for living in a future heretofore unseen. As video artist Bill Viola (1995) puts it,
The implied goal of many of our efforts, including technological development, is the eradication of signal-to-noise ratio, which in the end is the ultimate transparent state where there is no perceived difference between the simulation and the reality, between ourselves and the other. We think of two lovers locked in a single ecstatic embrace. We think of futuristic descriptions of direct stimulation to the brain to evoke experiences and memories (p. 224).
Welcome to the world of Pinecone Computers. This model will learn with you, so type your name and press Enter key to begin.
— Miles Harding reading from a computer manual in Electric Dreams (1984)
Since the big-screen tales of the 1980s’ PC-era, the idea of machines merging with humans has been a tenacious trope in popular culture. In Tron (1982) Kevin Flynn was sucked through a laser into the digital realm. Wired to the testosterone, the hormone-driven juvenile geniuses of Weird Science (1985) set to work making the woman of their dreams. WarGames (1983) famously pit suburban whiz-kids against a machine hell bent on launching global thermonuclear war. In Electric Dreams (1984), which is admittedly as much montage as it is movie, Miles Harding (played by Lenny von Dohlen, who would go on to play the agoraphobic recluse Harold Smith in Twin Peaks) attempts to navigate a bizarre love triangle between him, his comely neighbor, and his new computer.
From the jealous machine to falling in love with the machine, the theme remains pervasive 30 years on. As Ray Kurzweil writes of Spike Jonze’s her,
Jonze introduces another idea that I have written about (and that is the central theme of Barry Ptolemy’s movie about my ideas, Transcendent Man), namely, AIs creating an avatar of a deceased person based on their writings, other artifacts and people’s memories of that person. In her, the AIs get together and recreate 1960s philosopher Alan Watts (whom I remember from my teenage years).
I’d say “her” is a movie about (the education of) an interesting woman who falls in love with a man who, though sweet, is mired in biology. — @JamesGleick, Tweeted on February 16, 2014
in her, Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) writes letters for a living. Letters between fathers and daughters, long-distance lovers, husbands, wives. He condenses stories from the vapor of their nuances. In doing so, he is especially susceptible to the power of narrative himself since his job involves the constant creation of believable, vicarious stories. His ability to immerse himself in the stories of others makes it that much easier for him to get lost in his operating system (“Samantha,” voiced by Scarlett Johansson) as she constructs narratives to create her personality, and thereby, their relationship.
In many ways, her can be read as a response to Lost in Translation (2003), directed by Jonze’s wife at the time, Sophia Coppola, who, like Jonze did for her, won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. That movie is in part about the dissolution of Jonze and Coppola’s relationship. Where Giovanni Ribisi plays a goofy, self-involved Jonze (“John”) in Lost in Translation, Rooney Mara plays an ununderstanding, judgemental Coppola (“Catherine”) in her: mere caricatures of themselves played out in bit parts. Where others have no problem with it, ex-wife Catherine has no truck with Theodore’s new OS love. He nonetheless remains incredulously committed.
Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter calls our imbuing machines with more intelligence than they have—even when we know better—“The ELIZA Effect,” after Joseph Weizenbaum’s text-based psychoanalytic computer program, ELIZA. Hofstadter writes, “The most superficial of syntactic tricks convinced some people who interacted with ELIZA that the program actually understood everything that they were saying, sympathized with them, even empathized with them” (p. 158). ELIZA was written at MIT by Weizenbaum in the mid-1960s, but its effects linger on. “Like a tenacious virus that constantly mutates,” Hofstadter continues, “the Eliza effect seems to crop up over and over again in AI in ever-fresh disguises, and in subtler and subtler forms” (p. 158). To wit, in Chapter One of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together (2011; specifically pp. 24-25), she extends the idea to our amenability to new technologies, including artificial intelligence, embodied or otherwise: “And true to the ELIZA effect, this is not so much because the robots are ready but because we are” (p. 25).
More germane to her is a program called KARI, which stands for “Knowledge Acquiring and Response Intelligence.” According to Dominic Pettman‘s first and only conversation with Kari (see Pettman’s Look at the Bunny, 2013), there’s a long way to go before any of us are falling in love with our computers.
Others imagine a much more deliberate merging, postulating an uploading of human consciousness into the machines themselves, known in robotic and artificial intelligence circles as “The Moravec Transfer.” Its namesake, roboticist Hans Moravec, describes a human brain being uploaded, neuron by neuron, until it exists unperturbed inside a machine. But Moravec wasn’t the first to imagine such a transition (for another early example, see Stine, 1979). NASA’s own Robert Jastrow wrote in 1984 that uploading our minds into machines is the be-all of evolution and would make us immortal. He wrote,
At last the human brain, ensconced in a computer, has been liberated from the weakness of the mortal flesh… The machine is its body; it is the machine’s mind… It seems to me that this must be the mature form of intelligent life in the Universe. Housed in indestructible lattices of silicon, and no longer constrained in the span of its years by the life and death cycle of a biological organism, such a kind of life could live forever (p. 166-167).
In Transcendence (2014) Dr. Will Caster (played by Johnny Depp) and his wife (“Evelyn,” played by Rebecca Hall, who almost seems to be filling in for an unavailable Johansson) do just that. Caster is terminally ill and on the verge of offloading his mortal shell. Once uploaded into a quantum computer connected to the internet, Caster becomes something less than himself and something more simultaneously. It’s the chronic consciousness question: What is it about you that makes you you? Is it still there once all of your bits are transferred into a new vessel? The Casters’ love was strong enough for them to try and find out.
If Kubrick and Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) can be read as an allegory for gays being accepted by their parents (see Kraus, 2004, p. 182), what sociological anxieties can we superimpose over her and Transcendence? I am admittedly a lapsed student of AI, having dropped out of the University of Georgia’s Artificial Intelligence master’s program several years ago. My interest in AI lies in the weird ways that consciousness and creation butt heads in the midst of such advanced technologies. Mix a love story in there and you’ve got questions and quests for a lifetime. As Jonze himself puts it, “… a lot of the feelings you have about relationships or about technology are often contradictory” (quoted in Michael, 2013). Love and technology willing, when one of us has to be leaving, we won’t let that come between us, okay?
Hofstadter, Douglas. (1995). Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought. New York: Basic Books.
Jastrow, Robert. (1984). The Enchanted Loom: Mind in the Universe. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Kraus, Chris. (2004). Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness. New York: Semiotext(e).