<<TRANSMATHOME

FLATLINE CONSTRUCTS

GOTHIC MATERIALISM AND CYBERNETIC THEORY-FICTION

Mark Fisher

contents

abbreviations

bibliography

 

3. XEROX AND XENOGENESIS:

MECHANICAL REPRODUCTION

AND GOTHIC PROPAGATION

3.1 Let Me Tell You About My Mother

3.2 The Simulacrum’s Revenge

3.3 Samuel Butler and Surplus Value of Code

3.4 Nuptials Against Nature: Sorcery and Propagation

3.5 The Wasp Factory: Neuromancer

3.6 Capitalism and Isophrenia: Ashpool

3.7 Wintermutation: Neuromancer as Sorcerous Narrative

 

 

3.2 The Simulacrum’s Revenge

 

Baudrillard: What is the ‘crystal’? It is the object, the pure event, something which no longer really has an origin or an end. The object to which the subject has wanted to give an origin and a purpose, even though it has none, is today starting to recount itself. There is a possibility that the object will say something to us, but there is also above all the possibility that it will take its revenge! [212]

 

Aldiss: ‘The new systems of machinery now coming in have great power, and it is a power to change the world. In the cotton towns, you can already see that power-looms are creating a new category of human being, the town labourer. As the machine becomes more complex, so he will become more of an expert. His experience will become centred on machines; eventually, his kind will become adjuncts of the machine. They will be called ‘a labour force.’ In other words, an abstract idea will replace a master-man relation; but in practice the workings of a labour force may be just as difficult. […]

            [A] culture will become enslaved by the machines. The second generation of machines will be much more complex than the first, for it will include machines capable of repairing and even reproducing the first generation! […]

            The greater the complexity of systems, the more danger of something going wrong, and the less chance individual will has of operating on the systems for good. First the systems become impersonal. Then they seem to take a mind of their own, then they become positively malignant!’

            ‘Then we are heading for a world full of Frankenstein’s monsters, Mary!’ exclaimed Byron, slapping his leg.[213]

 

Alongside Baudrillard’s vision of celibate, enclosed – or imploded circuits -, always haunting the dream of perfect reproduction, is a line of escape. Baudrillard calls this “the simulacrum’s revenge”. As we leave the first-order behind, resemblance, Baudrillard says, disappears as a criterion. “No more semblance or dissemblance, no more God or Man, only an immanent logic of the principle of operativity.” (SED 54) As Baudrillard explains, operativity is the “principle” of the second order. Now that machines are no longer slaved into being “the image of man” they can reproduce indiscriminately; and so, Baudrillard says, can human beings. Mass human reproduction – the emergence of the proletariat in the new industrial towns – is a side-effect of machinic reproduction. “After this, robots and machines can proliferate - this is even their law - as automata, being sublime and singular mechanisms, have never done. Men themselves only begin to proliferate when, with the Industrial Revolution, they took on the status of machines: freed of all semblance, freed even from their double, they grew increasingly similar to the system of production of which they were a miniaturized equivalent. The simulacrum’s revenge, which gave rise to the myth of the sorcerer’s apprentice, did not take place with the automaton; on the contrary, this is the law of the second order, from which there proceeds a hegemony of the robot, of the machine, of dead labour over living labour.” (SED 54)

 

The most exemplary (social science) fictions of the second-order are Marx’s, clearly echoed in Baudrillard’s language here. It is Marx, writing of the “necromantic” power of capital, who sees human beings re-made in the images of the machines they supposedly produced. Marx begins to see the reversal that  Baudrillard will base much of his theoretical work upon: instead of machines being produced (and reproduced) to satisfy pre-existing human needs, human beings will be reproduced in order to satisfy the requirements of the system (which treats human beings not as ends-in-themselves but as servomechanical adjuncts to industrial – and later – cybernetic machines). For Baudrillard, both machines and humanity reproduce only because the system – the code – demands it. As he puts it as early as For a Critique of the Political Economy of  the Sign, “man is not reproduced as man: he is simply regenerated as a survivor (a surviving productive force). If he eats, drinks, lives somewhere, reproduces himself, it is because the system requires his self-production in order to reproduce itself: it needs men. If it could function with slaves, there would be no ‘free’ workers. If it could function with asexual mechanical robots, there would be no sexual reproduction.”[214]

 

Thus Marx – as the theorist most closely associated with “the industrial simulacrum” – becomes the prophet of “the hegemony of the robot.” Running alongside Marx’s theory-fictions of becoming-robot is the classic example of the narrative of “the simulacrum’s revenge” in modern fiction: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It is not for nothing that the theme of the displacement of sexual reproduction is central to Frankenstein, in many ways the founding text of the modern genres of Science Fiction and Horror. The subsequent stratification of fiction-production into these two genres – a stratification never fully achieved, since, as we have seen, SF and Horror have often found themselves tangled up together – has tended to imply a splitting of the Gothic line, typically putting Science Fiction on the side of a speculative machinism, and Horror on the side of supernaturalism. Yet Victor Frankenstein’s achievement in artificially synthesizing the means of reproduction is presented, by Shelley, as the moment where alchemical ambition is vindicated by electro-libidinal science; there is no need to posit a supplementary, extra-material, or supernatural dimension – Nature can overcome itself. Yet it does so also by presenting Man – and the gender designation is here of course deliberate – with a set of unanticipated consequences; the unanticipated – but always latent - consequences which constitute the true “simulacrum’s revenge.”

 

What Frankenstein brings together is the identitarian dream of perfect reproduction – a dream Baudrillard tracks through to its latest manifestation in cloning and genetic engineering - with a vision of  “object revenge”. The object, that is to say, refuses to stay in the position assigned to it: as  passive, or hierarchically inferior, matter. As its subtitle tells us, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus pre-emptively critiques the “Promethean” narratives that Baudrillard will claim to be definitional of later nineteenth century Science Fiction. If it is conventional now to treat the monster as symbolic of the emergent industrial machinery - as Bruce Mazlish argues, “[a]lthough Frankenstein’s creation is, in fact, a monster, its existence raises the same fundamental ‘mysteries’ as if it were a machine – such are the amorphous connecting powers of myth”[215] – it is because it presents exactly the figure of Promethean revolt – and counter-revolt – that Baudrillard takes to be typical of the “industrial simulacrum.”

 

If the Frankenstein story is no doubt implicit in Baudrillard’s account of “the simulacrum’s revenge” it is not something to which he actually refers. Once again, Baudrillard’s comments here seem to echo remarks made by Wiener. When Wiener is warning of the danger of cybernetics he refers not to the Frankenstein story, but, like Baudrillard, to “Goethe’s poem, The  Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in which “the young factotum who cleans the master’s magic garments, sweeps his floors, and fetches his water is left alone by the sorcerer to fill his water butt. Having a full portion of that laziness which is the true mother of invention [...] the lad remembers some fragments of an incantation which he has heard from his master and puts his broom to work fetching water. This task the broom carries out with promptness and efficiency. When the water begins to overflow the top of the water butt, the boy finds that he does not remember the incantation that the magician has used to stop the broom. The boy is well on the way to be drowned when the magician comes back, and gives the apprentice a good wholesome scolding.” (GGi 57) Wiener also invokes Jacobs’ short story “The Monkey’s Paw”, in which a family wish for money, but find that their wish is fulfilled only when their son is killed, and they receive the insurance money for his death. According to Wiener, the “theme of all these tales is the danger of magic. This seems to lie in the fact that the operation of magic is singularly literal-minded, and that it grants you anything at all it grants you what you ask for, not what you have asked for or what you intend. [...] The magic of automation, and in particular the magic of an automatization in which the devices learn, may be expected to be similarly literal-minded.” (GGi 59) The Jacobs’ story in particular shows the “literal-mindedness” of magic to which Wiener refers – when the family wish for money, they receive literally what they have asked for, even though this brings the family something they would never have wanted (the death of their son). The magic spell, like the machine, according to Wiener, will only do what it is told; but in apparently following the instructions of its human “users” to the letter – and only to the letter – it brings disaster. What is crucial, in both Baudrillard’s terms, is the “operational” displacement of hermeneutic communicational models – which involve interpretation and the role of intentionality – by strictly programmatic logics of “code”. Code and programming are radically indifferent to any intention that is not already inscribed into them.[216] What, according to Wiener, magic spells have in common with code is that the power any user accrues by running them depends upon their giving up “control” to sequenced programs which may have a very different effect than the user imagines, or anticipates.

 

Wiener repeatedly reinforces the connection between cybernetics and magic. Linking “inexorable magic or an inexorable machine” (GGi 68) and pointing out that “the reprobation attaching in former ages to the sin of sorcery now attaches in many minds to the speculations of modern cybernetics,” (GGi 49) Wiener writes of “black spells” and “the magic of automation.” (GGi 65, 68) For Wiener, the Jacobs and the Goethe stories belong to “the accumulated common sense of humanity, as accumulated in legends, in myths, and in the writings of conscious literary man. All of these insist that not only is sorcery a sin leading to Hell but it is a personal peril in this life. It is a two-edged sword, and sooner or later it will cut you deep.” (C 55-56) Sorcery is “two-edged” because, like cybernetic machines,  it awards power – or control – only to the degree that it demands control be given up by the individual subject; the circuit, the cybernetic loop, takes over.

 

Haunting all these narratives is something Wiener alludes to in the first chapter of Cybernetics (something we encountered, briefly, in our Introduction). “In the days of magic, we have the bizarre and sinister concept of the Golem, that figure of clay into which the Rabbi of Prague breathed in life with the ineffable name of God.” (C 51) Wiener’s full length discussion of the theological implications of cybernetics, let us remember, is entitled God and Golem inc. The golem – the magically-produced creature which, in some versions of the myth – in anticipation of Frankenstein – runs amok and threatens to destroy his creator, stands, for the Wiener of God and Golem, as a symbol of all the “unanticipated consequences” latent within the independent, self-sustaining circuits of cybernetics. God and Golem ­– which although clearly haunted by the golem myth actually discusses it only fleetingly – finds that cybernetics has reanimated old – theological – debates, concerning the relationship between the creator and what it  creates. “God is supposed to have made man in His own image, and the propagation of the race may also be interpreted as a function in which one living being makes another in its own image. In our desire to glorify God with respect to man and Man with respect to matter, it is thus natural to assume that machines cannot make machines in their own image; that this is something associated with a sharp dichotomy of systems into living and nonliving; and that it is moreover associated with the other dichotomy between creator and creature.”  (GGi 12) Since cybernetics radically question these dichotomizations – and with them the glorifications both of “man” and of  “god” - a whole new set of moral – and theological – questions emerge. “Thus, if we do not lose ourselves in the dogmas of omnipotence and omniscience, the conflict between God  and the Devil  is a real conflict, and God is something less than absolutely omnipotent. He is actually engaged in a conflict with his creature, in which he may very well lose the game. And yet his creature is made by him according to his own free will, and would seem to derive all its possibility from the action of God himself. Can God play a significant game with his own creature? Can any  creator, even a limited one, play a significant game with his own creature?” (GGi 17) This question becomes an urgent one for Wiener since the supposed virtues of cybernetic machines – their adaptability and their ability to learn – presents the danger that they are no longer subservient to their “creator’s” wishes – or rather that the “wishes” of the human users, like those of Goethe’s sorcerer’s apprentice, may contain latent dimensions which, when the machine fulfills its brief, bring unanticipated – and potentially horrific - consequences; a situation exacerbated, of course, when the production of such machines is itself a massively distributed process involving a whole population of humans. Without the “omnipotence” and the “omniscience” Wiener thinks of as “dogmas” there is no “God”, nor even – perhaps – an act of creation, there is only a process of production, in which the supposed creator is no less immanent than the supposed product.

 

Viewed conventionally, the opposition between God and Golem describes a set of hierarchical relations which place God – as the transcendent Ideal – at one end, and raw matter at the other. Looked at one way, God and Golem are at either side of “man”: God creates “man”, and man creates Golem.  This would be to describe the relationship in terms of an analogical structure, in which  man is the analgon  of God, just as the Golem is the analgon of Man. A chain of resemblance slaves production into a hierarchical structure going from God, through Man, to the Golem. Here, the Golem story is about hylomorphism: like God before him, man shapes formless matter into the shape of the body of a living creature But this is only one way of construing the God, human and Golem relation. Told another way, the relationship between God and Golem can also be about the escape of orphan matter – Worringer’s “Gothic avatar” - from Deleuze-Guattari’s “Judgements of God”: the supposedly fixed and immutable arrangement of matter into “strata”. (See TP, especially “Who Does The Earth Think It Is?”) If, as Baudrillard says, this is no longer a question of  “semblance or dissemblance, God or Man”, for Deleuze-Guattari there is something else involved here, beyond a straightforward “revenge” of an “object”: the processes they describe are, in Nick Land’s terms, “self-regenerating circuitry, cumulative interaction, auto-catalysis, self-reinforcing processes, escalation, schismogenesis, self-organization, compressive series, deutero-learning, chain-reaction, vicious circles, and cybergenics.”[217] These are processes that go beyond “revenge” and “reversibility”, and instead require a whole reconfiguring of questions of temporality and causality under the sign of rhizomatics and a – strictly non-metaphorical - sorcery. What is initially crucial here is the concept of  “surplus value of code.”

<< Back to Contents | Section 3.3 Samuel Butler and Surplus Value of Code >>



[212] Gane, ed, Baudrillard Live Selected Interviews, New York/ London: Routledge, 1993, 51

[213] Brian Aldiss,  Frankenstein Unbound, London – Jonathan Cape, 1973, 64-65. Aldiss’s novel is a metafictional commentary on the Frankenstein story, interpolating a time-travelling twenty-first century dweller into the monster’s primal scene at Villa Diodati; but Aldiss places the monster alongside his (fictional) creator – Frankenstein – and his (real) creator, Mary Shelley. For our purposes, the point is made in the quotation as presented: the Frankenstein story is (re)read in terms of second order simulacra – machines mass reproducing themselves by formatting human beings as their sex organ slaves.

[214] For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, 86. These arguments are advanced, of course, both as a continuation of Marx, and as a critique of Marx’s humanism. With Deleuze-Guattari (particularly the Deleuze-Guattari of Anti-Oedipus) and the Lyotard of Libidinal Economy, Baudrillard wants to insist, with Marx, on the way that capital operates independently of human will, but, against Marx, he wants to claim that there are no pre-existent human “needs” which are being exploited, perverted, or alienated. If there are primordial needs, they belong not to the human being -–certainly not the individual human being – but to the system itself. Baudrillard, naturally, will not make the move that Deleuze-Guattari do: de-privileging need and use value while thinking production alongside a desire that is not understood in terms of need.

[215] Mazlish, The Fourth Discontinuity: the Co-evolution of Humans and Machines, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993, 44 Yet it is worth bearing in mind Haraway’s – passing – comment on the Frankenstein story. By contrast with her cyborg, Haraway points out, Shelley’s monster remains in a state of  Oedipal revolt – rising up against his putative “father” rather than affirming its orphan status as Outsider-replicant. “Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein’s monster,” Haraway writes, “the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden; that is, through the fabrication of a heterosexual mate, through its completion in a finished whole, a city and cosmos.” (Simians, Cyborgs and Women, 151). The simulacrum’s revenge, then, remains just that: a case of resentimment, never achieving a line of flight.

[216] The so-called Y2K – or Millennium Bug – problem constitutes an excellent example of exactly what Wiener feared. The convention of using two-digit dating systems in computers has resulted in a major security crisis at the end of the millennium,  precisely because of what Wiener calls the “literal-mindedness” of computers. Seeing a date 00, they naturally assume that it indicates (what we could call) 1900.

[217] Nick Land, “Machinic Desire”, 176