Ghosts Of The Future
I had planned for the first new piece of philosophy-related writing to appear on here to be about my personal interest in the work of the recently deceased American academic Richard Rorty, but instead I’m going to talk about Steven Shaviro’s book Connected (Or, What It Means To Live In The Network Society), because it is fresh in my mind and causing me take notes, purchase obscure movies, and think about reading more science fiction. I’ve been meaning to read Connected for a long time, and Amazon took four months to deliver when I finally got around to ordering it.
I should point out that although Shaviro’s cultural critiquing in Connected takes much of its source material from comics, film, and science fiction, it is not exactly pop or altogether approachable. This is a book that intersects with many aspects of culture, including the work of difficult writers such as Deleuze and Guattari, and potent philosophers such as Spinoza, Kant and Marx. You don’t need to be familiar with all these bearded types to take something from this book, but Shaviro is a critic whose work is probably going to appeal to readers with a wide culture vocabulary. Shaviro’s own vocabulary is seemingly boundless – observations about experimental hip-hop and postmodernism all come tumbling out, to be analysed, developed, and interwoven with other conceptual nuggets. All these topics are, of course, somehow (speculatively) connected.
Like JG Ballard’s experimental novella The Atrocity Exhibition, Connected is written as a series of headlined paragraphs, each containing a thought or analysis of its own. Although there are large themes moving across the book there are no chapters: it simply steps from Ballard to Baudrillard, from Transmetropolitan to The Critiques, all delivered as casually as if these were a route anyone might take through the jungle of Western culture. The theme is connection, the network, capitalist control, and the ideas that cause our world to ‘flow’. For Shaviro, the network is simply all of modern society, with its conversation and gossip, images and jingles, television shows and games, automobiles and carrier pigeons. We’re all caught up in it, and not just by virtue of telephones and the internet.
Science fiction is key to illuminating these themes and Shaviro’s master text is KW Jeter’s fierce cyberpunk opus, Noir, to which he returns again and again as he attempts to illustrate what it is to be connected. This is a fascinating study of a neglected work of science fiction, which itself is filled with political prophesying and darkly futuristic philosophizing. Noir is evidently a rich and troubled work, and one that has some striking things to say about creativity, copyright and reality itself. Shaviro’s capacity to identify and analyse great lost works, such as Misha’s Red Spider White Web, makes Connected an intriguing and (thanks to some out-of-print texts) infuriating read. (Why didn’t I know about this stuff before!?) But it also makes it a striking work of science fiction criticism, which draws out elements from those works that are useful or innovative.
Connected is also a portrait of the tools science fiction offers us in understanding the predicament that we find ourselves in today. They are, Shaviro reveals, equal to the ideas provided by writers and artists of all kinds, including philosophers past and present. Shaviro links and analyses Abel Ferrera, J.G. Ballard, William Burroughs, Octavia Butler, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Philip K. Dick, George Romero, William Gibson, Ken MacLeod, China Mieville, Thomas Pynchon, Bruce Sterling, David Cronenberg, Terrence McKenna, and Ridley Scott. The effect is slightly dizzying. Hurtling through the rustic French countryside last weekend, reading this book and then looking out of the coach window to see the silvery, ribbed form of a SmartCar disappearing through the hedgerows, gave me existential shivers. The future seems relentless and right here, all the time, especially when you’re reading Shaviro’s poetical paragraphs. His observations and speculations are often pessimistic and routinely unsettling, but compelling and insistent – making Connected a simultaneously thrilling and worrying book to read.
But Shaviro still does more than simply outline science fiction’s “ghosts of the future” created in literature to “haunt” the uncanny world we now live in. His writing provides more interesting ways to think about modern culture than I can possible detail here. As you can see from the list in the last paragraph, much of what Shaviro has to talk about comes from a swathe of writers whose outlook is bleak and foreboding, but it also speaks of the complexity of contemporary life. From migrating birds to psychedelic drugs, the source materials for understanding the network are various, intriguing, and often unexpected. Shaviro explains how the term “virtua”, as we currently use it, should probably be equated or replaced with the term “prosthetic”. He correlates the effects of DNA, LSD, money, and electronic data, and of the themes and meanings of cyberpunk and Film Noir. But most importantly, he identifies how the network, and the fundamental architecture of capitalism that dominates it, destroys our creativity and limits our freedom. He examines the power of the network on our lives, on the ways that surveillance contains and controls us, and the way that science fiction has tried to rescue us by way of allegories and warnings.
I think Shaviro does get a little carried away with the idea that technology encompasses us, ending up with near scare-tactic statements such as “today, the technosphere, or the mediascape, is the only nature we know”, but nevertheless he writes in the kind of informed yet fragmentary and non-linear manner that seems appropriate for the kind of reader he is trying reach (and at the same time portray). He also seems to illuminate the nature of the true subject matter of the network: information.
It is the nature of information, its transformative capacity and immateriality that really seem to lie at the heart of what it means to live in the network society. Shaviro has many warnings for us (usually from the science fiction writers and the philosophers) about what this nature might entail. The warning that I took from this book, rightly or wrongly, is that information and the control of information will ultimately define many of our life’s experiences. What it means to live in the network society, or modern society generally, is that the qualitative aspects of being human are going to be controlled largely by the flow of information. Just how being human seems and feels is going to be less and less up to us and our animal natures, if the network has its way. If there is any optimistic glow on the horizon then it is in human imagination, and in the satisfaction we can take from subverting, remixing and loving through the network.
Anyway, my girlfriend grows angry with my late-night information laundering and I must conclude. Connected is a rich, dense book that provides plenty to worry about and even more to be interested in. It’s one of those books that seems off-putting thanks some of its pretensions, but it is nevertheless sublimely clued-in and almost impossibly well informed. The Marxist bent and general theoretical juggling make it tricky terrain, but satisfying to traverse. And like the science fiction technologies that it invokes Shaviro’s book provides some new ways to see the world, and some new ways to investigate its abyssal, fractal depth.