One Hour Photo (2002) [Origins of Theory-Fiction #7]

Mark Romanek (dir.). One Hour Photo (Killer Films/John Wells production for Fox Searchlight Pictures/Catch 23 Entertainment: 2002).

Sy “The Photo Guy” Parrish (Robin Williams) works in the photo development studio and kiosk located at the back of the local SavMart store. His otherwise solitary life is dedicated to the underappreciated art of developing prints for casual shoppers and regulars alike. Through his work, Sy becomes a minor figure in the lives of his customers. Likewise, Sy becomes invested in the subjects of these prints: he comes to know them in a very particular way, through the moments thought to be the most important or happy by the photographers. As Sy himself is aware, “no one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget.”

Conventional narrative cinema is at a disadvantage compared to experimental or documentary film, when it comes to enacting or producing a theory or original engagements with thought. Often, what the film industry takes to be its most cerebral legacies (at its most supposedly laudable, the tired gods Inception and The Matrix) are composed, in essence, as empty vessels, carriers of “philosophy stuff” that imply hasty readings of existentialism and pop science. Rarely do films, mainstream or otherwise, ask us to confront media themselves, to approach the questions of representation and performativity via the processes of capturing images with cameras. One Hour Photo is not a theory-fiction about film, but it does depict textual becomings (or becoming-textualities) through the medium of photography. In this narrative, Sy Parrish is both a conscious and considered author-theorist and a willing participant. Over the course of the film, the stories Sy crafts through the prints he receives gradually become inextricable from his own. In a sense, he lives entirely through the carefully-selected memories of others, like a reverse hyperstition: “element of real culture that makes itself effective.” Or, to take another pop culture example, like the subject of The Cure’s “Pictures of You”: “I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you/That I almost believed that the pictures were all I could feel.”

Let’s trace Sy’s world-building fiction as it unfolds over the course of the film to explore this idea in depth. Early on, we are introduced to the family that becomes Sy’s object of desire, the neatly-arranged Oedipal triad of father Will, mother Nina, and son Jake Yorkin. The Yorkins have been regular customers for years: Sy commments that he’s watched 9-year-old Jake grow up through photos of birthdays, that he “feels like Uncle Sy”; deliberately letting slip his desire to enter and disrupt the equilibrium of the family unit. When, at the beginning of the film, Nina and Jake arrive at Sy’s kiosk (the absent father is another recurrent theme), and Sy notices that the last shot on their latest reel hasn’t been used, he uses the opportunity to take a picture of himself. This is a critical act of self-portraiture, as it marks the moment where Sy is able to cast himself into the family household, in a continuum of images, happy memories for the photo album, coffee table or refrigerator. As no one but Sy is aware, he possesses extra prints of all of the Yorkins’ photos, in a striking collage on the wall of his apartment; the same images existing in two places at once, Sy’s unattainable desire is to assimilate the two sets of prints into one.

As well as the more obvious limits to social acceptability (the unmistakably Walmart-esque non-place that is the setting for much of the film illustrates the corporate code of conduct repeatedly), there’s an economic barrier to the fulfilment of this desire too. The Yorkins’ light and spacious minimalist house (more like a suburban mansion, paid for by Will’s profession as the director of a design company) sharply contrasts Sy’s out-of-town, dingy flat. This is especially apparent during a fantasy sequence in which Sy breaks into that house, and sees that self-portrait on the fridge door alongside the (very) familiar snaps of the family. The differences between the two households are clear to Sy: the Yorkins’ lives are abundant, joyful, idyllic, and literally picturesque; his life, on the other hand, is lonely, cold, and a perpetual economic and emotional struggle. Where the Yorkins are extrovert and public, willing to perform their fantasy of a perfect life to the eye of the camera, Sy is an introvert, a scavenger for images that would imbue his life with significance.

Yet as carefree as the Yorkins’ photographic story appears, it fails to illustrate the family’s much more turbulent domestic situation. At the core of this is husband-father Will’s “neglect”, the source of which is revealed to Sy to be his affair with another woman, Maya Burson. Sy is wounded by this discovery, to an almost personal degree. These two people, Will and Maya, stand to jeopardise the photo-narrative he has invested so much into, and so the remainder of the film sees him planning and enacting his revenge on them both. Perhaps here we can sense a degree of self-loathing in this reaction: their desires not especially different, Maya is merely a more successful interloper than Sy, so it seems Sy is weighed down by a refusal to face his own hypocrisy. Instead, he assumes control of a narrative he takes to be his (and in a sense, he is right), to cut off the flows of desire that have disturbed the harmony he needed to believe in.

At the centre of One Hour Photo are the photos themselves; it is a story about static images, told through moving images. At the time of the film’s release, digital photography was set to replace film photography, rendering Sy’s lab work antiquarian for the general consumer. If the twentieth century was dominated by the presence of photographic images, the beginning of the twenty-first has put this process into hyperacceleration, with the infusion of the digital photo, all-in-one portable devices (mobile smartphones), Wi-Fi and 4/5G, and image-centric social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook). It may not even be possible at this stage to measure the full impact of these technologies on social behaviour, but it ought to be evident that this revolution of images gifts all of us photo producer-consumers a great source of power. This power of the image (some might say glamour) produces in us a cocktail of thoughts and emotions which is often overbearing for individual human users, and can (and indeed does) manifest in sociopathic expressions: shame, terror, self-harm, suicide. We are (implicitly or not) keenly aware that without online presence, especially for the otherwise isolated, we risk not existing at all, and our photographic identity is a key component in this. We are all encouraged to shape our own photographic narratives, driven by an almost cultish sentiment of keeping alive. Sy’s observation – that we don’t have photos of things and times we want to forget – is more resonant now than ever: the surgical tools granted to us ensure that the deletion of an image no longer leaves behind even a physical residue.

The image One Hour Photo forces us to confront is that of Robin Williams, whose widely-publicised suicide in 2014 consecrates the actor’s visage as a Yorick-like memento mori. It’s too easy to grant hindsight the agency for subsequent interpretations of Williams and his work, of which much of the best has often been able to suggest a melancholic aspect. Georg Rockall-Schmidt says that while many remember Williams’s talent for being funny, he remembers more sharply Williams’s talent for being sad, and I think this comment is very astute. Regardless of this ability during life, the impact of Williams’s death surely does affect the watching of One Hour Photo. The film does more than portray a dead film star; our cultural memory coerces us into seeing a dying one. If Sy’s narrative is one of pornographic voyeurism (however platonic in its expression), that is at times uncomfortably close to our own photographic lives, then the position of One Hour Photo in the narrative of Robin Williams invites a voyeurism of a different kind: proto-snuff. And as Paul B. Preciado notes, “the notion of snuff is opposed to the dramatic or simulated and mimetic quality of all representation.” As bodily and somatic theory-fiction, snuff “affirms the performative power of representation to modify reality, or a desire for the real to exist in and by representation.” The danse macabre of Williams on screen is fully actualised in his portrayal of the desperately lonely Sy Parrish, speaking to the daily whirlwind of images we produce and consume, the legitimacy they promise but which we can never possess or embody, the dualistic celebrity/nobody of our spectral subjectivity. Sy’s thanatropic desire for the illustrious, elusive real is ours too: a mortification that is already under way.

Origins of Theory-Fiction is a series of blog posts/short essays exploring some of the critical texts of the emerging question of the embedded and stacked relationships between text and concept, fiction and “reality”. The purpose of this series is to gesture towards a concrete, working definition of the term theory-fiction, without being prescriptive, reductive, or exhaustive. As well as identifying some of the foundational theoretical works and literary hybrids to which this label has been assigned, this series will also examine key individual works of image, sound, and writing that allow us to further understand this provocation, and to test the limits of its usefulness and applicability. The titles of each of these posts is not necessarily the title of the theory-fiction under discussion, but rather the provocation for thinking about the theory-fictive mode. There is also no significance to the numbering or order of their production: they can be read independently or in any order desired.

Aphex Twin – Richard D. James Album (1996) [Origins of Theory-Fiction #6]

Aphex Twin. Richard D. James Album (1996: Warp Records).

When I was a teenager, I suddenly developed skin allergies which still persist in a milder form to this day. I therefore needed 2 or 3 prescribed medications (nowadays down to 1) to deal with these sudden reactions, and found that I couldn’t use heavily perfumed products – including most common soaps – without causing irritations to my fair skin. I decided, following medical advice, to replace as many hygiene products as possible with milder, alternatives, with fewer potentially harmful ingredients, but this meant going through a period of experimentation, with not every result being kind or favourable. I’d opted for a new moisturiser – it had an image of a globe on the bottle and boasted quite loudly of its “natural ingredients” – which, after a couple of days had completely dried out the skin on my face, making it wrinkled, broken, and hideous. I had just discovered the music of Aphex Twin, and found a strange caveat to my experience: that I could now look in the mirror and see a ghoulish visage not unlike that on the cover of the Richard D. James Album.

My first exposure to this record probably came in the form of (Salad Fingers creator) David Firth’s wonderful unofficial video for “4”. I can say with reasonable confidence that this track, with a handful of others, had an effect on me that felt like nothing less than a reprogramming of my brain. In the last “Origins of Theory-Fiction”, I considered DJ Screw and his legacy as a paradigm of musical breakthrough made through slowness, and much of the Richard D. James Album and other AFX releases during this time (Girl/Boy EPCome to Daddy, Windowlicker, and Drukqs) take the opposite direction with results that are no less startling. James presents compositions with elements pitched at different yet complimentary speeds, but what immediately grabs the attention are his breakneck and hyper-detailed drums, producing ever-mutating rhythms, patterns, and textures. Strings, bass, and other electronic elements layer over these drums, contrasting them sharply with their laconic paces. These latter features have a more immediate beauty, but on repeated listens fall back slightly in order to accentuate a more complex and substantial sublimity provided by the percussion. These are drums capable of endless variation and interpretation, which strive to capture what art rarely manages to process: the speed of life. Or rather, a life, which connects to many.

In a career defined by unpredicted slippages and left turns, AFX’s Richard D. James Album stands as a remarkable piece of self-portraiture (might we say autotheory?). Or perhaps not, as James has always been interpreted through a haze of rumours: one exists that he had a stillborn older brother, also named Richard, and so the album could also be an obituary to a lost “twin”. (See also the cover of Girl/Boy EP.)  It’s an achingly nostalgic 33 minutes at any rate, even as it has one foot firmly in the present-future. James had left his native Cornwall for London in the early 1990s, and much of the panoramic and liberating sentiment one might expect comes across in moments of his debut album, Selected Ambient Works 85-92. But this feeling dampens somewhat on the releases following this, and a darker introspection creeps in, taking over completely on the feverish, synesthesia-induced Selected Ambient Works Volume IIRichard D. James, by comparison, feels like an exorcism, a driving out of demonic influences through reconfiguring these self-representations, like the head sculptures of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.

Which brings us full circle to that face again. A grotesque contortion with a deep gaze and plastered, immobile smile, made by James himself using early photo editing software. The associations we could derive are many: kinships with the mythical figures of Cornwall’s past (coastal giants, witches, pirates, and other cliffside dwellers), and the vulnerable figures of the immediate past of techno-modernity (the weakling children and Oompa-Loompas evoked through the record’s tracklisting). Ultimately, what James provides is a self-assertion, a key to determining the nature of what is being presented that doesn’t resort to prescription. A starting point which, through its apparent transparency, reveals an inscrutable enigma. A method of fixing an image of a cross-section of the forever-alien web of life. Richard.

Origins of Theory-Fiction is a series of blog posts/short essays exploring some of the critical texts of the emerging question of the embedded and stacked relationships between text and concept, fiction and “reality”. The purpose of this series is to gesture towards a concrete, working definition of the term theory-fiction, without being prescriptive, reductive, or exhaustive. As well as identifying some of the foundational theoretical works and literary hybrids to which this label has been assigned, this series will also examine key individual works of image, sound, and writing that allow us to further understand this provocation, and to test the limits of its usefulness and applicability. The titles of each of these posts is not necessarily the title of the theory-fiction under discussion, but rather the provocation for thinking about the theory-fictive mode. There is also no significance to the numbering or order of their production: they can be read independently or in any order desired.

DJ Screw [Origins of Theory-Fiction #5]

In the 1990s and 2000s, the mythic depths of Southside Houston, Texas became the fertile grounds for an astonishing and totalising sonic fiction. Its originator, DJ Screw, gave his name to a genre-technique, and with it the soundtrack to an entire culture. “I started messing with the pitch adjusters on the turntables and slowed it all the way down. I thought the music sounded better like that.”[1] All the best music is hyperspecific (to borrow Terre Thaemlitz’s term), and the bass-heavy, syrup-slow screw style has become inextricable from the cultural legacy of Houston. Screw was prolific, releasing around a thousand or more “screw tapes” during his lifetime (before passing away in 2000 from a codeine overdose). The bulk of any given tape is made up of slowed-down Southern and West Coast hip-hop productions, featuring either the original vocalists (including future venerated artists like Houston’s UGK and Memphis’s Three 6 Mafia) or freestyles from the Screwed Up Click (S.U.C.). The languid, druggy feel marked out both Screw and Houston as distinct from the East/West Coast dialectic which characterised mainstream hip-hop during the 90s. (Today, however, it is hard to deny Atlanta as the most influential musical centre for the genre as a whole.) The scene which developed around Screw and his innovation (tales of queues stretching around the block from his house waiting for his latest tape) has had a steady impact on the music of today, both in the mainstream and underground, and has also spawned a whole host of imitators and successors to the “chopped ’n screwed” aesthetic.

Screw’s world is pure Southern Gothic, the demonic vocal manipulations and skeletal imagery exhibiting itself as alienating and alienated. Not only was Texas rap a long way from mainstream representation, the state itself is humid, diffuse, and spacious, as opposed to, say, the densely-packed boroughs of New York. This world also encloses and reinforces itself through the promotion of local names and references, made timeless and spectral via their recording to tape.[2] The lyrical themes to many S.U.C. freestyles border on parody (sippin’ lean, wood grain steering wheels), but the relative breeziness of this content belies an implicit fixation with death and finitude. Given the well-entrenched racial history of the area (the Confederacy, the Klan, lynchings) this is not surprising, but since his death the ghost of Screw himself stalks through the haze of his mixes, a haze thickened inexorably by the purple drank which accompanies any understanding of the scene (and which itself eventually claimed Screw’s life). Each of these factors combine in screw music as a pathological, interiorised state: alienation, paranoia, depression, and ultimately hedonism. But also the more positive experiences of empathy and solidarity, a recognition and desubjectification with other occupants of the purple haze, and the possibility of ascension into material and spiritual success (both individually and for the whole Dirty South).

While Screw’s tapes and CDs present his fiction at its most complete, its posthumous percolations have enabled it to survive and adapt to present day contexts and accelerate its influence. As I and others have said before, there would likely be no vaporwave without DJ Screw, but we can also credit his impacting musicians as diverse as Lil Ugly Mane, Beyoncé, A$AP Rocky, and Rabit. In the cases of all but the latter, the risk of reducing screw to a musical gimmick is always something that has to be negotiated, but Rabit’s recent screw tapes such as CRY ALONE DIE ALONE arguably expose an understanding of the pathways for further extension of the original idea behind screw as both a passive noun (screw tape, screw track), and an active process of distorting and expressing the interior/exterior psychic terrain that has led to its production, and within which one is immiserated (or screwed). From a recent feature for Resident Advisor, in which Rabit describes his early experiences after moving to Houston:

“You would go into the gas station and see Mariah Carey chopped-and-screwed CDs, stuff like that,” he said. “It was the only music that I would hear coming out of cars. It sounds like alien music, especially when it’s something like Mariah Carey. DJ Screw played a lot of Southern and West Coast rap music, but he was [sic] chopped a lot of, like, Sting, or whatever was popular at the time. Soul or rock. He was selling hundreds of tapes a day.”

“That a single person could have such an impact on the way music is heard or transmitted is pretty rare,” he added. “That’s a huge influence and it’s crazy to think about. People aren’t doing that anymore. Like, “I’m gonna play what everyone wants to hear but I’m gonna play it half-speed’ – normal people don’t think of something like that out of the blue.”[3][4]

Notes

[1] DJ Screw. “Givin’ It to Ya Slow”, interviewed by Bilal Allah for RapPages (November 1995), available online at https://ifihavent.wordpress.com/2006/12/05/givin-it-to-ya-slow-dj-screw-interview-from-rappages-1995/.

[2] ““You could get a tape for like $10,” remembers Bun B. “Then, for $15, you could give him a list [of songs] you wanted and he’d shout you out on the tape. For a little more, you could actually come to Screw’s house and shout out people yourself.”” In Joseph Patel. “Chopped & Screwed: A History”, MTVNews.com (2006), available online at https://web.archive.org/web/20061125191537/http://www.mtv.com/bands/h/hip_hop_week/chopped_screwed/index.jhtml.

[3] In Andrew Ryce. “Label of the month: Halcyon Veil”, Resident Advisor (29th January 2019), available online at https://www.residentadvisor.net/features/3391.

[4] This post was hugely informed by Roni Sarig’s book Third Coast: OutKast, Timbaland, & How Hip-Hop Became a Southern Thing (Boston, MA: Da Capo Press, 2007); specifically, the chapter “Houston Reprise – The Turn of the Screw” (pp. 313-36).

Origins of Theory-Fiction is a series of blog posts/short essays exploring some of the critical texts of the emerging question of the embedded and stacked relationships between text and concept, fiction and “reality”. The purpose of this series is to gesture towards a concrete, working definition of the term theory-fiction, without being prescriptive, reductive, or exhaustive. As well as identifying some of the foundational theoretical works and literary hybrids to which this label has been assigned, this series will also examine key individual works of image, sound, and writing that allow us to further understand this provocation, and to test the limits of its usefulness and applicability. The titles of each of these posts is not necessarily the title of the theory-fiction under discussion, but rather the provocation for thinking about the theory-fictive mode. There is also no significance to the numbering or order of their production: they can be read independently or in any order desired.

Koyaanisqatsi (1982) [Origins of Theory-Fiction #4]

Godfrey Reggio (dir.). Koyaanisqatsi (Institute for Regional Education/American Zoetrope: 1982).

Koyaanisqatsi is a film you’re probably familiar with, even if you haven’t seen it, as since its release it’s been cited, imitated, and parodied on many occasions. Watching it again today (especially for the first time) it may even seem unspectacular or passé, compared with any number of extraordinary footage and experimental filming techniques developed since (try YouTube for a quick example). Ostensibly a documentary forewarning the environmental impacts of urbanised humanity on a quickly destabilising planet (Koyaanisqatsi – the Hopi word translated as “life out of balance” in the film’s subtitle), the film demonstrates director Godfrey Reggio and cinematographer/editor Ron Fricke’s commitment to “pure cinema”: that is, film without dialogue, acting, or diegetic sound. What is presented in Koyaanisqatsi is 86 minutes of footage, filmed across various locations throughout the United States – and a marked transition, from the “natural” environments of the Canyonlands National Park, Utah, to the encroaching industrial developments of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and the Glen Canyon Dam, and eventually to the urban sprawls of St. Louis, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

It is both this narrative structure and the pacing of its shots that is key to Koyaanisqatsi as a work of art that enables its audiences to break away from pre-structured configurations of “reality” and see the world in new, previously inaccessible ways. Certainly, the film has its predecessors – for one, Dziga Vertov and Elizaveta Svilova’s celebrated 1929 Soviet experiment Man with a Movie Camera – and Reggio and Fricke’s previous collaborations in public service announcement advertising at the IRE (Institute for Regional Education) clearly played a part in Koyaanisqatsi’s production and eventual direction. But the film was very successful on its release (perhaps owing, in part, to the attachment of Francis Ford Coppola’s name to the opening credits), helping to disseminate its ecological prophecies to large audiences, and enter the canon of popular culture thereafter. The experience of watching Koyaanisqatsi is that of a kind of alien voyeurism, in which Earth is brought into focus through the adoption of various lenses and speeds of visual processing. The early scenes – featuring barren landscapes, meteorological phenomena, and the like – are frequently comprehended via a glacial slowness, lending otherwise ephemeral cloud and wave formations, for example, a taut, physical presence. This is carried over to the first scenes featuring human populations and synthetic infrastructures (one of the most mesmerising shots is that of jet engines gliding like corpulent swans across a heat-hazed runway – and Georg Rockall-Schmidt has made an excellent short video on the “moving portrait” of the pilot). Later in the film, as we move into the jostling metropolises, the main difference in pacing becomes that of a transition from slow motion to time-lapse: the speed of people, vehicles, and light take on strange new rhythms and metres when presented at breakneck paces, resembling swarms of like-minded parasitical creatures all too clearly.

If it’s Koyaanisqatsi’s approach to the multiple speeds of worldly apprehension that makes it a valuable subject of this discussion, one final factor to consider as a theory-fiction acceleration device is the film’s score, provided by Philip Glass. Glass wrote the soundtrack in advance of the final composition of the film’s images, which were then set to his music retrospectively, a very unusual practice in this medium. And it is the wedding of the music’s pacing, its speeds and slownesses, and its crescendos and diminuendos, with Reggio and Fricke’s imagery, that amplifies the film’s narrative potencies in the exceptional manner that it does. As with the visual footage, the score evolves gradually and organically; its main instruments – synthesizers and human voices – swelling from a fractured and stoic minimalism to a punchy and efflorescent maximalism, before coming down again in the epilogue to the image of a rocket fuselage spinning uncontrollably back to Earth, following a failed launch. The dynamics of music are perhaps the greatest untapped resource for the potentials of theory-fiction investigation, something that will be addressed specifically in the next few posts.

Origins of Theory-Fiction is a series of blog posts/short essays exploring some of the critical texts of the emerging question of the embedded and stacked relationships between text and concept, fiction and “reality”. The purpose of this series is to gesture towards a concrete, working definition of the term theory-fiction, without being prescriptive, reductive, or exhaustive. As well as identifying some of the foundational theoretical works and literary hybrids to which this label has been assigned, this series will also examine key individual works of image, sound, and writing that allow us to further understand this provocation, and to test the limits of its usefulness and applicability. The titles of each of these posts is not necessarily the title of the theory-fiction under discussion, but rather the provocation for thinking about the theory-fictive mode. There is also no significance to the numbering or order of their production: they can be read independently or in any order desired.

Jeff VanderMeer – Annihilation (2014) [Origins of Theory-Fiction #3]

Jeff VanderMeerAnnihilation (2014), in Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy (London: 4th Estate, 2018), pp. 1-197. 

That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality. (110) 

In addition to a work of speculative fiction (or New Weird), a treatise on imminent (/immanent) ecological horror and post-Anthropocentric survival, and (as the 2018 film adaptation makes painfully clear) an extended allegory for cancerous pathologies and the deindividuated self-destruction of cell programming, Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel Annihilation is also a work of fiction that takes the power of the written word very seriously. The novel’s central objective discovery (absent entirely from the film, which I will now abstain from referring to) is of a passage of writing: a sort of fungal flora growing out of the wall deep inside the subterranean vertical tunnel named by the narrator as “the tower”. The content of this passage is obscure, and ultimately, it is decided by the narrator, unimportant: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner […]”. This text, however, has an agency all of its own: its message is not disseminated through interpretation and relay, but inhalation. “I was unlucky – or was I lucky? Triggered by a disturbance in the flow of air, a nodule in the W chose that moment to burst open and a tiny spray of golden spores spewed out. I pulled back, but I thought I had felt something enter my nose, experienced a pinprick of escalation in the smell of rotting honey.” (27) 

Before noting the effects of this textual contagion, it is worth considering one or two things about the hosts. The “characters” of Annihilation are anything but “rounded”, or psychologically multilayered; instead going by their ascribed job titles – the protagonist is “the biologist”, for example, joined on her expedition by “the surveyor” and “the psychologist”, married to “the husband”, etc. (From page 11: “we were always strongly discouraged from using names […]. Names belonged to where we had come from, not to who we were while we were embedded in Area X.”) These figures assert their processes over their personalities (see also Deleuze & Guattari’s Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature and Plateaus 4 and 5 of A Thousand Plateaus). Consequently, they function as bundles of collective affects (or elements of effective culture), ready for any potential becomings. This is seen in the biologist’s modulation into Ghost Bird: a xeroxed tulpa identified by what she calls a “brightness” emanating from within. She even identifies herself as a “demon” during her gunfire exchange with the alienated surveyor. (The significance of the demonolgical to theory-fiction is explored in Fisher’s Flatline Constructs, Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia, and several posts on this blog.) 

But while the reader may be inclined to see these effected changes to the narrator’s subjective being (as well as those effected on the topography of the environment which has become known as Area X) as harmful, they are instead described in more ambivalent terms. While the destruction of said subjectivity is acknowledged as a loss of rational certainties and adequate means of expression (something Eugene Thacker calls misanthropic subtraction), the encounter with the script is more positively affirmed as an opportunity for escape from individuation and passage to the becoming-multiple. The meeting with the Crawler, late in the novel – a being which can barely be perceived, let alone apprehended – is the pivot for said deindividuation. While weird fiction is known for having a penchant towards authoritarian scientists becoming subjected to unnameable cosmic horror (a trend perfected by Lovecraft), VanderMeer’s protagonist is willing to embrace the transformative potentials of the loss of certainties gathered from her encounters, in a way that these predecessors found themselves unwilling or incapable of. The author’s intention was to provocatively suggest Area X and its inhabitants as a “best case scenario” of ecological mutation – the cancerous expansion of alien becomings effectively shielding the Earth from the mass extinctions it inevitably faces. As current occupants of the planet (“ghosts roaming a haunted landscape”, as the husband poignantly acknowledges), it might indeed be the case that intense organic modifications may be the only means of preserving life on an uninhabitable Earth. (This, of course, is not a get-out clause for avoiding collective environmental action – it is obviously vital that we do everything in our capacity to save life on Earth while the opportunity for doing so is still open to us.) The ending of the novel – Ghost Bird preparing for a deeper descent into Area X, without any suggestion of ever returning – may constitute the first steps into this experimental new form of becoming; a sort of de-colonialist subversion of Colonel Kurtz. “I’m well beyond you now, and travelling very fast. […] I am not returning home.” (196)

Origins of Theory-Fiction is a series of blog posts/short essays exploring some of the critical texts of the emerging question of the embedded and stacked relationships between text and concept, fiction and “reality”. The purpose of this series is to gesture towards a concrete, working definition of the term theory-fiction, without being prescriptive, reductive, or exhaustive. As well as identifying some of the foundational theoretical works and literary hybrids to which this label has been assigned, this series will also examine key individual works of image, sound, and writing that allow us to further understand this provocation, and to test the limits of its usefulness and applicability. The titles of each of these posts is not necessarily the title of the theory-fiction under discussion, but rather the provocation for thinking about the theory-fictive mode. There is also no significance to the numbering or order of their production: they can be read independently or in any order desired.

Adam Curtis – The Living Dead (1995) [Origins of Theory-Fiction #2]

Adam Curtis (dir.). The Living Dead (BBC: 1995).

There is no other person using image to disrupt or challenge the dominant historical narratives that make up the present day more successfully, I think, than Adam Curtis; his inclusion in this series was always going to be certain. Curtis’s films and television programmes, for those who are unfamiliar, are largely archival montages: often of news footage (which in his employ in the BBC he has made liberal use of), carefully chosen film clips, and occasional interviews. In regards to the latter, Curtis’s own presence is rarely felt, and he never appears in front of the camera. These films however feel uniquely individualistic, and would still feel individualistic even without his sober narration. (We can observe this in his most recent works: as they have become longer, so have the periods in which the montages on display have been allowed to perform undisturbed in front of our eyes.) Across more than twenty years, inevitably, certain themes have persisted in Curtis’s work: these include the emergence of new, occluded forms of power, as well as the unseen or forgotten individuals who have enabled these forms. But these films and programmes are mostly concerned with the relationship between narratives and the political, as they have (both) been packaged, naturalised and lived by large groups of people in the present day. As such, Curtis’s work performs a double function: it reveals the faultlines stitching together the inchoate, immediatized fabrication we call reality, whilst simultaneously presenting its own patchwork of images, perspectives, and juxtapositions as a work of investigative and illuminating metafiction. The visual and narratological techniques which make up an Adam Curtis documentary may belie a meticulous craft, or a cynical sleight of hand, but these techniques feel eerily appropriate to both the subjects on display and to the experiential world’s own acts of curation and selection.

A particularly revealing example of this double function is the series of three hour-long films broadcast in 1995 under the name The Living Dead: Three films about the power of the past. Each of these films deals with the troubling and deliberately enforced nationalist myths that were revived in Germany, the US, and Britain following the Second World War. In the (re)construction of national identities, Curtis notes, old memories of former greatness were brought back from the past into haunted presents, in order to directly contest the horrors of the twentieth century. Yet the very incompatibility of these anachronistic memories with a rapidly developing postindustrial modernity, and the repression of the least desirable events of the recent past, led to these alternate histories’ slight return.

The archetype of their respective reality managements (and the uneasy equivocations that are later implied, though never stated) was Hermann Göring’s vision for Nazi Germany. The first episode, “On the Desperate Edge of Now”, shows the site of Göring’s former residency, Carin Hall, a monument to the Teutonic glories of old, and of deindividualised nationalist collectivity. This is contrasted with post-war Nuremberg, the site for both Germany’s “Year Zero” and the Allies’ own exorcisms of the past. The obliteration of rational democracy induced through total war (witnessed by those on the front line) required the US to assume leadership in reinstating a new worldview, based on the essentialism of human dignity, and the capacity for individuals to flourish. In the ensuing decades, however, this new narrative begins to fall apart. Forgotten memories rise to the surface in the minds of veterans, whose beliefs in “The Good War” were first shaken in the forests of Europe. The silent shame of the German survivors, now the older generation, incites division with their successors, eventually snowballing into the terroristic acts of the Red Army Faction. Finally, old rivalries in Europe are resurrected in the form of the Bosnian war, and the limits of inhumanity are once again experienced.

The Nuremberg trials become something of a focal point across the three films: it is here that a number of architects for the post-war world converge, two of which are featured prominently in the remaining episodes. “You Have Used Me as a Fish Long Enough” highlights the psychiatric work of Donald Ewen Cameron, whose later work with the CIA worked specifically on the military applications of enforced memory erasure (the invention of replicants). The Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology was one of many CIA-funded research centres during the Cold War era employed to intercept Soviet infiltration. (The Soviets, it was widely believed, were working on psychically-engineered agents, a fear exacerbated by Lee Harvey Oswald’s connections to the USSR.) Cameron’s “psychic driving” – the use of electroconvulsive shock treatments to erase memories, with the intention of subsequently installing implants – was critical to the replacement of traumatised individuals with “rational human beings”. This “depatterning”, or erasure of the past reinforced a mechanistic conception of the mind, and the project was phased out in favour of artificial intelligence programmes, such as those developed by ARPA.

Also at Nuremberg was the British war veteran and Colditz escapee Airey Neave. Neave later became a Conservative MP, a position which culminated in his management of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership campaign. In the third episode, “The Attic”, Curtis depicts Thatcher’s obsession with Churchill’s wartime narrative of “Great Britain” as the main factor in both her success and eventual failure. This mythological Britain was reinforced in the perceived successes of Thatcher’s premiership (The Falklands war, the recovery of the Mary Rose, the foundation of British Heritage), yet collapsed under the weight of repressed counter-narratives (the assassination of Neave by the Irish National Liberation Army, the Black Friday stock market crash). Thatcher’s subsequent downfall, which culminated in her forced resignation in 1990, is shown to be fully consistent with her entrapment within her romantic dream of a virtual British excellence. What each of these films show is that the ideological force of singular, powerful narratives (which, in their naturalising totalitarianism, function as substitutes to reality, and are understood as such) are fully dependent upon the desires and political authorities of a handful of individuals. These interrelated mythologies constitute an apparent wholeness; yet it takes only the eruption of a few dissenting subplots to collapse this seamless whole.

Origins of Theory-Fiction is a series of blog posts/short essays exploring some of the critical texts of the emerging question of the embedded and stacked relationships between text and concept, fiction and “reality”. The purpose of this series is to gesture towards a concrete, working definition of the term theory-fiction, without being prescriptive, reductive, or exhaustive. As well as identifying some of the foundational theoretical works and literary hybrids to which this label has been assigned, this series will also examine key individual works of image, sound, and writing that allow us to further understand this provocation, and to test the limits of its usefulness and applicability. The titles of each of these posts is not necessarily the title of the theory-fiction under discussion, but rather the provocation for thinking about the theory-fictive mode. There is also no significance to the numbering or order of their production: they can be read independently or in any order desired.

Mark Fisher – Flatline Constructs (1999) [Origins of Theory-Fiction #1]

Origins of Theory-Fiction is a new series of blog posts/short essays exploring some of the critical texts of the emerging question of the embedded and stacked relationships between text and concept, fiction and “reality”. The purpose of this series is to gesture towards a concrete, working definition of the term theory-fiction, without being prescriptive, reductive, or exhaustive. As well as identifying some of the foundational theoretical works and literary hybrids to which this label has been assigned, this series will also examine key individual works of image, sound, and writing that allow us to further understand this provocation, and to test the limits of its usefulness and applicability. The titles of each of these posts is not necessarily the title of the theory-fiction under discussion, but rather the provocation for thinking about the theory-fictive mode. There is also no significance to the numbering or order of their production: they can be read independently or in any order desired.

 

Mark Fisher. Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction (1999), available online at  https://web.archive.org/web/20080325013155/http://www.cinestatic.com:80/trans-mat/Fisher/FCcontents.htm.

How appropriate, that the most important textual resource for examining the genre-concept of theory-fiction – perhaps the only full-length treatise on the subject to date – would relegate its primary definition of the term to a footnote in one of its final chapters? (Doesn’t this always seem to be the way?) “It might be worth a parenthetical note here”, Mark Fisher finally admits, in Chapter 4.4 of Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction, “making some attempt to unravel what’s at stake in the emergence of the – new? – mode, theory-fiction”. This unravelling is of a term defined largely by the work of one philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, and the many pitfalls and entanglements that have resulted in the variegated readings and misreadings of this work. Taking the most straightforward, “cold” reading of the orders of simulacra which informs Baudrillard’s (often controversial) social analysis – this being theory-fiction as a dialectic of two distinct and straightforward categories, “theory […] on the side of the real and fiction […] on the side of the imaginary” – makes little sense, and is borne out of a presupposition in which “reality” is singular, stable, and objective. Baudrillard’s work, on the other hand, suggests two possible reconfigurations of the conceptual and fictive modes. Fisher:

  1. Fiction as theory. This option further subdivides: (a) Fiction in the form of theory (fiction that uses, or incorporates academic conventions: examples here include T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Nabokov’s Pale Fire). (b) Fiction performing as theory. This, potentially, could include any fiction offering theoretical resources of some kind.
  2. Theory as fiction. This is theory presented in the form of fiction. The most well-known exponents of this mode – Nietzsche, Kierkegaard – are hardly new. At its most radical, what is at stake here is more than the disguise of theory as fiction, or fiction as theory, but a dissolution of the opposition itself. Two, related, claims, one descriptive, the other prescriptive emerge from this: (1) all theory is already fiction; and, (2) theory should abandon its assumed position of “objective neutrality”, and embrace its fictionality. But something happens to fiction here; it is no longer, simply, on the side of the imaginary.

Moving beyond both the first-order of simulacra (metaphor, resemblance, parody) and the second (representation, equivalence, pastiche), it is Baudrillard’s third-order simulacra which is most clearly associated with the categorical smearing that defines theory-fiction as a question, or “mode”. The feedback between fiction and reality under the third order, Fisher shows, occurs on the same plane of consistency: no transcendence (or psychological projection), only immanent foldings and unfoldings (implexion). Take cyberspace as an example. Beyond, of course, its globally distributed material infrastructure, where is it? Answer: it is not simply in “this world”, nor does it constitute an entirely delocalised “other” world (where it would be incapable of affecting this “first” world). Rather, cyberspace “constitutes a fold in the world that is nevertheless a real production – an addition – to the world as such.” Cyberspace therefore is not a copy of the real world, but a constituent part: it can never step outside of the world to a vantage to conduct its tracing. This is what theory-fictions are, according to the Baudrillard-Fisher definition: implexed hyperobjects which produce hyperreality. (We must be confident, however, in our understanding of hyperreality not as an explicit “death” of objective, singular reality, but rather of the death of the fictional as a discrete mode of ontologisation: “it is fakery – not reality as such – that is impossible now.”)

It is in the hyperreal – the (de)simulation of the world – that enables the memetic (as opposed to mimetic) propagation of the fictional quanta known as hyperstitions (not named as such here). For it is when a particular fiction gains a purchase on the “actual” (but could such a concept be maintained on the plane of immanence?) that it, in the Ccru parlance, makes itself real. There is a parallel here with capitalist realism as neoliberal insurrection: as Fisher later maintained, the genius of such a manoeuvre was to radically invert the collective assertion of reality, such that what was, prior to its realisation, thought to be impossible emerged, a posteriori, as inevitable. Hyperstition assumes both autonomy and agency, but then, so do people assume autonomy and agency in (“undead”) technical machines: “According to Wiener, when confronted with cybernetic machines, human beings found themselves behaving as if the systems possessed agency. Since the systems cybernetics produced behaved at least quasi-autonomously, they naturally gave rise to the belief in non-human (and non-subjective) agencies”. The return of animism and demonism in cybernetic postmodernity is seen by Fisher as an undoing of the psychoanalytic categories of the individual psyche and of an individualistic account of organic life (unsustainable on the single plane of consistency). In their place, Fisher posits Spinozist bodies, defined by their extensions in spacetime and their affects, which fictional quantities are as capable of assuming as “living” organisms.

What, then, is to be made of the twofold definition of theory-fiction outlined above? Clearly, 1a appears ludicrous: “academic conventions” are not what defines theory at all, and a novel is no more philosophical than another simply because it uses footnotes. I would be inclined to support 1b, were it not for the strange emphasis on performance. This is ambiguous, but it seems to indicate a retreat from the third-order back to the first (resemblance). Regardless, the offering of theoretical resources is actually a very helpful descriptor for a broad categorisation of theory-fiction texts that are (ostensibly) conceived in fictive modes. Defined in this way, these kinds of theory-fictions offer more than the concerns of literary theory – themes, perspectives, devices, and the like – and imply a shifting of the contours of the realistic – what the world which “contains” this fiction could possibly be (and indeed, escape from this model of containment in itself).

As for “fiction-theories” (a meaningless inversion of terms, yet equally legitimate to the former alignment), it is again necessary to delegitimise theoretical works using literary conventions as mere resemblances (the Nietzsche-Kierkegaard model indicated above) as sufficient in itself, and to move instead in the direction of the “dissolution of the opposition itself.” It is clear, however, that while for Fisher this move inevitably leads to the “descriptive” claim that theory is already fiction by default, this does not seem to happen in reverse: while hyperreality effaces the grounding for theory to remain objective (therefore always-already inherently fictional), fiction must work hard in order to migrate over to theory. One might argue here that this argument in fact widens the gulf between fiction and theory further, by illustrating that the criteria for each are radically different. There are no ready-to-hand “fictive resources” that theory can simply implement; fiction is instead defined here in terms of subjectivity and the orders of simulation. But perhaps there is a way through this if we consider what is gained as fictions move from one order of simulation to another.

Perhaps there is one more section of Flatline Constructs that could help to clarify the process by which texts become configured as theory-fiction, and this is the difference between metafiction and hyperfiction (in 4.7). For Fisher (via Brian McHale), metafiction operates within the meta-system illustrated by Douglas Hofstadter’s strange loop. This is a superstitional device which embeds or disguises authors within the fictions they have written, giving them the status of characters and helping to bury the origins of the work. In this model, Hofstadter maintains, there is always an “inviolable layer” that prevents the loop from fully closing, and the author of the work from fully disappearing: there remains here, however entangled, a hierarchy. The model Fisher appeals to in the case of the hyperfiction is that of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome, the constantly additive structure which repels unity and overcoding, and the ability to leap out of itself. With the rhizome, hierarchy “is radically abolished”, and fictions propagate instead by infection of the collective imaginary – from within. Using this transition from a first or second-order simulation to a third-order – from metafiction to hyperfiction, from mimesis to “memesis” – could we appropriate a set of fictive tools by which to analyse the Real seeping in? Surely, it would seem, this what a speculative fiction-theory would describe, and indeed, possibly enact.