The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Future City: BLAME! as Postmodern Architecture Hell

Let's talk about the buildings in BLAME!, demons, and postmodernism.

Is the City of BLAME!--the vast architectural mess the size of the solar system--the urban blight that stretches to the Oort Cloud, mostly devoid of humans, the end point of the Anthropocene, the final extinction event of our geological era that creates a new geologic age fit to totally obliterate all the others? Maybe. There's issues with that term though and with the broader using of geology to narrate history, as Daniel Hartley points out in Salvage Magazine. Drawing on the work of Jason Moore, he suggests that really we occupy the "Capitalocene"--that the current extinction event we face is driven by a particular, historical attitude towards extracted resources, itself driven by a vision of an endlessly growing economy.

The argument, as I understand it, is that rather than humanity simply rising up and dominating "Nature" by virtue of our basic human nature, instead the whole idea of the "Anthropocene" comes from an ideology that puts us apart from nature. Or, more to the point, under capitalism certain things have to be designated "nonhuman"--"Nature" (and anything else we might render subhuman or abhuman)--so that they may be extracted.

This idea takes the old dynamic of the worker exploited by the boss and adds to it the unpaid worker, the slave, the colony, and "Nature"--anything that free value can be got from. The great extinctions of our era, for Hartley and his various sources, should be pinned not to the rise of humanity, or the rise of steam power, or oil extraction in particular, or anything like that, but to the specific rise of an ideology of endless extraction where this separate thing, this Nature, is raw material to hand to be used. Everything, as in Heidegger, is viewed as a potential resource. As a result, we hurtle toward apocalyptic collapse because the system of the world simply can't stop extracting use value from everything in sight, no matter what gets burned out, used up, ground down, or sucked dry in the process.

Cyberpunk often takes this logic to the extreme. Oh, sure, there's not a lot of nature left in cyberpunk stories, usually, but that's sort of the point: cyberpunk worlds are worlds where everything has been subsumed into the logic of consumption. Human bodies especially are made use of. Think of a notion Gibson returns to repeatedly of people renting their sleeping bodies out as sex toys. Even the body at rest has to have value extracted from it. I don't know about you but there's something about this that makes my skin crawl. Some of it is the dubious consent dynamics, but I think it goes deeper than that, to a fundamental horror at the idea that even at rest, even in sleep, we might be made to work. 

The idea that "working in your dreams" as Dresden Codak posited it would be preferable because it involves "profiting from creative energy alone" is naive, all the more so the suggestion that the government might try to regulate it, rather than, say, using the existence of dream work an excuse to cut welfare further. It's a fundamental, horrifying violation of bodily autonomy... but that's Cyberpunk! The freedom we'd like to imagine (and believe me, I wistfully include myself here...) that would come from cyborg bodies comes with fine print. Maybe I should be writing a whole separate article here on Repo! The Genetic Opera, certainly a work of -punk, Biopunk maybe, but for now let's leave it at this: if corporations are putting DRM locks on tractors and toaster ovens, and locking "smart" coffee machines to their proprietary goods, why wouldn't they do the same thing to your cool new robot tits?

In the Cyberpunk future your new cybercock might be hot... but it's only because it's been looped into a bitcoin mining botnet and its CPU is being overclocked by some teenager in Neo Seoul.

If Cyberpunk is the end state of this extractivist ideological regime, and BLAME! is the end of Cyberpunk, it stands to reason that BLAME! must be the horrifying thing that emerges beyond the horizon of absolute exploitation. How does it stack up?

Well... the setting is a massive dyson sphere constructed using resources pumped in from the rest of the galaxy in an orgy of endless, pointless, undirected growth for its own sake.

Sounds about right.

A dyson sphere, for folks not familiar with the sci fi concept, is a massive energy capturing assemblage, a huge shell around a solar system's sun, designed to harvest all the power of that solar system with perfect efficiency. This isn't, notably, an idea from cyberpunk, it's just a broader sci fi idea about how "advanced" a civilization is based on the scope of the resources it can extract, on increasing levels of absurdity. So, it's not from Cyberpunk, it's just part of the broader endless growth ideology. 

In BLAME! though the idea finds its true home.

And yet... I'm not sure BLAME! can even be described as part of the same system that created it anymore. Perhaps even "capitalocene" suggests a human arrogance too absurd for geological scales, though. Theorists with an affinity for seeing things from Things' perspectives keep nervously pointing this out. They might use different names for it--vibrant matter, assemblages, Hyperobjects--but there's a unified sense that whatever this age is characterized by, humans play a relatively small part in it. Oh, sure, we may have dumped hydrocarbons into the atmosphere, but then there was all those methane pockets (and seeds and carefully preserved diseases) waiting in the Arctic for the moment when they might burst open... These forces might unexpectedly join together to reach down and squash a city or two like the hand of God, or the whip of some demon. There's something of the demonic possession in the actions of these hyperobjects. Any occurrence might be the unseen demon at work, something we conjured but can't control.

NOiSE of course features, explicitly, a demon conjuring, and the cover of the manga depicts Musubi as Christ In Majesty, or perhaps Joan of Arc, a crusader and agent of God (but what god, and where is He in the text?) against a demonic force. Silicon Life, though, might be demonic but they aren't, functionally, any different from the Safeguard, in terms of their broader ideology. Both are fundamentally interested in taking the final step of using human flesh and genes as raw material, extracting value from the deepest levels of the human organism. There's some noise about "order" and "chaos"--and certainly later silicon creatures we see, like Maeve and Ivy, claim to be agents of chaos within the Netsphere--but both factions ultimately create systems of uncontrolled growth, unrestrained by any human capacity. 

They have created a new hyperobject, each carrying out their own "demon summoning."

The geological era defined by that demon is the Silicene, the creation of a new silicate ecosystem and type of life, and it is also the rise of an inhuman mode of production in which endless growth driven by profit finally gives way to endless growth for its own sake, pure and eldrich. The thing that Nick Land worships might look something like the Netsphere.

I'm trying to imagine what the personal hell of Fredric Jameson would look like, and I keep coming back to the city of BLAME!. I don't know, though, maybe he would just find it so fascinating that he could happily wander it in his cyborg body, Real Cool Gun at his side, for a few thousand years.

Jameson is fascinated by plenty of comparable architecture. New, empty cities, for example. Jameson, in "Future City", is fascinated by the image of uninhabited Chinese urban spaces, as they feature in Rem Koolhaas's Project on the City. "[W]e witness thousands upon thousands of buildings," Jameson narrates in a kind of awe, "constructed or under construction which have no tenants, which could never be paid for under capitalist conditions, whose very existence cannot be justified by any market standards." These spaces require no people, or commerce, they must simply be symbols of wealth, symbols of a new form of posthuman postcapitalism.

It is Postmodern. BLAME! is Postmodern.

I don't mean exactly that it sets out to be a postmodern text. It's more that it expresses something about postmodernism. Postmodernism, I think, isn't so much a style or form of narrative as it is a kind of affliction. Some architects might work in a postmodern mode, for sure. Jameson talks about architectural forms where all the classical elements (columns, arches, friezes and so on) simply jumble together in an MC Escher floating optical bewilderment, no longer meaningfully functional but just signifiers of, like, architecturyness, haphazardly thrown about. That's probably solidly Postmodern.

But a mall that sprawls out bewilderingly in countless directions until parts of its body, limbs of the starfish, become oxygen starved and suddenly, shockingly decay, is also postmodern. This is Junkspace. Here's Rem Koolhaas on Junkspace, as quoted by Jameson:

Architects thought of Junkspace first and named it Megastructure, the final solution to transcend their huge impasse. Like multiple Babels, huge superstructures would last through eternity, teeming with impermanent subsystems that would mutate over time, beyond their control. In Junkspace, the tables are turned: it is subsystems only, without superstructure, orphaned particles in search of framework or pattern. All materialization is provisional: cutting, bending, tearing, coating: construction has acquired a new softness, like tailoring.

Aging in Junkspace is nonexistent or catastrophic; sometimes an entire Junkspace—a department store, a nightclub, a bachelor pad—turns into a slum overnight without warning: wattage diminishes imperceptibly, letters drop out of signs, air conditioning units start dripping, cracks appear as if from otherwise unregistered earthquakes; sections rot, are no longer viable, but remain joined to the flesh of the main body via gangrenous passages.

And now here's Jameson, writing my argument for me: "Cyberpunk seems to be a reference to grasp at here, which—like Koolhaas, only ambiguously cynical—seems positively to revel in its own (and its world’s) excess." Thanks buddy. I wouldn't normally just impose such a huge quote block on you but Jameson seems stunned by Koolhaas's writing here and it's easy to see why. Junkspace here seems to be a kind of blighted biomechanical Sublime, a kind of slipping into dissociation that doesn't come from some internal state but instead is simply an accurate perception of a world constantly melting, distending, ballooning, becoming much more than can be managed, becoming a hyperobject, Continuing To Expand.

The Netsphere is the ultimate postmodern architectural environment. Mangaka Tsutomu Nihei is himself trained as an architect, apparently, and it certainly shows in BLAME!'s dazzling vistas of impossibly huge structures (and the sense that those structures are only part of ever larger organizational systems). Part of its uncanniness comes from the very fact that it's clearly drawn and constructed by a human hand yet the power of comic illustration, and a willingness to spend whole damn chapters on just characters walking from place to place, makes the world seem profoundly inhuman in its scale. (The Netflix film adaptation can't spend so long on just shots of characters walking around endless corridors and staircases without safety rails, so it achieves the same effect by rendering everything with just slightly uncanny 3D animation which is more suited to visualizing Safeguards and technoscapes than it is to depicting the human Electro-Fishers that Killy encounters.)

Jameson elsewhere discusses the delirious architecture of postmodernism as a kind of collapse of space into a continuous, fluidly bounded thing. There is no inside or outside in the City. In fact, there's not that many doors. There's so many open archways that actually seeing a mundane, public building style door at one point discomfited me momentarily. The boundaries of the City itself are organic, full of strange orifices, to the point where it's similarly difficult to say for certain just what "The Edge of the City" is.

It shouldn't come as much surprise, I suppose, that this feels very familiar to me, living in Toronto. After all, Jameson is writing about contemporary architecture, with Tsutomu Nihei's fever dream of a city simply expanding that contemporary architecture to solar scale. Sometimes I have the sense in Toronto of buildings simply growing. I walked past a new emerging cluster of homes last night and the plastic blowing from the sockets of windows seemed like the residual membranes of some fungal growth or insect life form, emerging from a chrysalis. There are buildings in Toronto where neoclassical edifices have not been removed but have simply been subsumed by great glass and metal superstructures. Sometimes the edifices are partly digested--enter the organic glass bulbs and you will find that the "outside" of the building continues into this "inside". Occasionally whole buildings--like, infamously, the Royal Ontario Museum--seem to glitch out, replaced by weird cubic structures suspended impossibly over the city or jutting out of residential areas. 

The root of all this, for Jameson, is consumerism, but not just in the sense of "buying too much stuff". Jameson's not finger wagging at us. No, this is way, way weirder, a theory of shopping and consuming where we aren't really buying things at all anymore. We're buying images of things, signs of things, signifiers of things. Without getting sucked too deeply into a bunch of theories by Jameson and Baudrillard and folks like that, I think it's sufficient to describe this as reality becoming layered in thick membranes of spectacle. This is why he talks about empty Chinese cities as being part of this new Junkspace, this new postmodern experience: they can be consumed without being used because they're only meant to be consumed as symbols. 

No matter how physical they may seem, they're really only virtual reality.

Certainly the city is not a place for anyone to shop or even live. It seems to exist just to be architecture. The city is a place of abundance despite its ruin. After all, there's technology here that allows for the rapid generation, from energy, of practically anything you have the specs for. If you've got the data for 3D printing a Gravitational Beam Emitter, you can print one up, as long as you can locate a printing site, and evade any safeguards that might be triggered by your attempt. But that's the rub. In an infinite city there are still squatters. In the presence of technology that lets one mold matter at will like a God there is still starvation. The purpose of the city is not to house or clothe or feed its inhabitants. The Netsphere exists to be spectacle.

The fundamental sickness of this becomes more apparent as the comic stretches on. The clean lines of early issues are increasingly taken over by masses of ink and crosshatching layers. The city, which always felt a bit like it only existed for Killy to blow Really Big Holes in with his Really Cool Gun, starts to more frequently undergoing the shocking decay Koolhaas talks about. It's an ecosystem, and even with a dyson sphere and heavy metal pumps and gravity engines, that ecosystem is collapsing as it expands. 

There needs to be some utopian challenge to the seemingly endless, relentless nature of this postmodern city.

Killy, our cyberpunk protagonist, ultimately does find Net Terminal Genes, but the story by that point has been rendered almost entirely delirious. At one point his whole body seems to be melted down and we watch him regenerate and break apart the long since hardened rocks that encase his Real Cool Gun and go on his way. Cibo and Sanakan die mostly without fanfare, having achieved some weird, never really explained queer union (Sanakan talks to the nearly mute Cibo/Level 9 Safeguard thing about "our child" but it's not really clear to me what she's even talking about). The final chapter depicts Killy, on his last legs seemingly, making his way to some point at the edge of the city, where he's shot in the head. Rain causes the sector to flood, carrying Killy's body through a series of abstract, formless, painted panels that have the merest suggestion of water or space or seaweed or reflective surfaces, the embryo egg containing the Net Terminal Child floating up... and then we get a final panel of Killy pointing his gun at something, a kid in a gas mask behind him, and that's it, folks, that's the fucking comic. ~Fin.~ and all that.

The Edge of the City, then, and a new order in the Netsphere, seems to be visible only through a film of abstraction. The closer you get to it the more it recedes from view. "Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world." But the attempt practically discards the comics medium at the end, the end of the Silicacene imaginable only through a Barnett Newman color field.

Tsutomu Nihei started a sequel series to BLAME! called Net Sphere Engineer that was, it's speculated, supposed to follow the adventures of the first new Net Terminal Human. He got one issue into the project in 2008. He hasn't written a single issue since.

There's one postscript that seems worth mentioning. In a single issue sequel to BLAME!, BLAME^2, we are introduced to a silicon creature, a fork apparently of the character Pcell's type, making her way alone through the city. Her village has been wiped out by invading humans, emboldened apparently by the return of Net Terminal control, but she carries her comrades' data with her. 

She also carries the conviction that somewhere the city ends.

Ultimately she reaches the edge of the megastructure and finds herself stymied by a Safeguard sentinel tower. Killy appears, blows up the tower, and apparently transports her to the surface, where she grows wings and flies off to found her village somewhere beyond the dyson sphere of the city.

Killy in this story seems like Mad Max--an entity of somewhat unstable canonicity who sweeps in to a situation and destabilizes it somehow, leading to a new status quo. He's a kind of mythic gunslinger more than a character here.

The silicon creature protagonist in contrast is not a great fighter, doing, to use Ursula Le Guin's words, "outstandingly manly deeds" in traditional sci fi fashion. Killy is there to do those and to be that. This distant Pcell fork, though, is there to journey to the edge of her encompassing reality and move beyond it in order to continue her form of life elsewhere. 

This humanoid creature growing spines that become tendrils that become wings until her whole body is a luminous cocoon, flying beyond delirious space into delirious new horizons, is utopian.

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