Hyperarchival Realism, Surveillance, and the Control Society

Christine Jun for Dazed Digital has posted an  A-Z list of some incredible contemporary art that engages with technologies of surveillance in “The dA-Zed Guide to Surveillance: Drones in the Sky, Whistleblowers in Jail: How Art is Responding to Big Brother’s Watch.” Of especial note is Robin Hewlett and Ben Kinsley‘s Street with a View, which was done a number of years ago while both were pursuing Master’s of Fine Arts degrees at Carnegie Mellon University, just down the street from me. I have met Ben a few times and had the opportunity to talk with him about this project while he was working on it. A pic (and a link to the Street with a View at Google maps):

Street with a View

I especially appreciate Hewlett and Kinsely’s hyperarchivally realist work here for integrating the archival processes of contemporaneity, the all-surveilling  eye of Google and their maps, the social and local residents of the area, and what in the end is pretty high-concept performance art. Simply wonderful. (And that they somehow got Google to come out and take part, all the better. I also probably should have posted something about Street with a View years ago, but I’m glad being pointed toward Dazed Digital‘s A-Z list reminded me of how excellent this happening was.)

Two Very Different Archives

David Pringle at a website devoted to the work of J.G. Ballard put up a list of the books Ballard read up until age 26. Pretty neat.

And did you hear? It’s official. Commercial art’s primary purpose is to collect data on you. Or at least that’s what Gawker is reporting about Jay-Z’s new album, Magna Carta Holy Grail. “It is not so much an album as a co-branded multimedia content delivery platform, Presented By Samsung™ Galaxy™ . . . . But now another, more unsettling use for the new album has become clear: It’s a massive data-mining operation. Fans used to obsess over album liner notes; now they freak out about terms-of-service.” Art used to be something we put in archives, museums, and libraries. Now it invades our home and puts us in archives. This is hyperarchival realism. Welcome to contemporaneity.

Notes on This is the End

This is the End 2013

So, let’s get this out of the way quickly. This is the End (dir. Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, 2013) is a terrible movie. (I had a previous inkling that it was going to be pretty wretched.) It is adolescent (if self-consciously so), puerile (viz. Satan’s giant phallus), and misogynist, among its other sins. Perhaps most damning: it is poorly imagined. There are a number of other ways that actors playing themselves in a movie about the end of the world at James Franco’s house could have gone. Seriously. This is a brilliant premise[1] but This is the End is embarrassing.

Despite this pretty damning opinion, the spirit of The Hyperarchival Parallax’s subtitle obliges me to give this onanistic bropocalypse its due. For if nothing else, the film is somewhat fun. This is largely due to the constant metafiction the film is engaged in: Michael Cera is a degenerate, the Back Street Boys exist(ed) (right!?), Aziz Ansari is not generally liked, etc. And this is funny/interesting b/c each actor plays themselves.[2] (Or at least it is supposed to be [and often is] funny.)

But the true failure of This is the End lies in never asking itself what its basic premise means.[3] Namely, what does it mean to make a film about the “Christian” Apocalypse with a cast of goofballs (who made it big for whatever reason) playing themselves in 2013? Yes, the film is self-aware about how indulgent of a film it is (is it really though?), but if you are going to parody the currently (very) popular craze with representing megadeath and mass-destruction[4]—and in a time of danger, a time of surveillance, climate change, war, revolution, torture, and disaster—without once asking why one might make such a film nor why such a film might be interesting, timely, or important at this late and exhausted date in 2013 . . . this is a mistake.

To my mind, This is the End is a product of the 2013 orgy of disaster (see fn. 3) finally turning in on itself. And it is about time. (Whatever one may think about David Foster Wallace’s irony or sincerity) This is the End is very necessarily ironic in this time of serious-ass superhero movies destroying significant amounts of urban real-estate over and over. But it is not ironic enough. There are too many dick and fart jokes, and not enough acknowledgment of what it is and what it is doing: that it is metafiction satirizing contemporaneity and its multiplying disastrous projections of national fantasy. This is the End, if nothing else, emphasizes that we should be wary of the sincere expression of eschatological national fantasy at the present time.

[1] It really is. Though I will refrain from speculating too much how differently this film could have gone, it is a tempting activity.

[2] Though this is also to assuredly stress that the film could have benefitted from a quick refresher course on John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Cynthia Ozick, David Foster Wallace, etc. Maybe especially Wallace’s “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” (1989).

[3] Its other true failure rests upon its mistaken idea that, at the end of the day (literally), experiencing the end of the world w/ your friends would be kinda fun.

[4] It appears that every week a new film that imagines really massive destruction or post-apocalyptic waste will come out for the remainder of the summer. (In fact, there are a number of them playing right now!) In 2013 (just off the top of my head) we’ve seen: Olympus has Fallen (dir. Antoine Fuqua), which imagines a terrorist attack on the White House; there is the forthcoming White House Down (the new Roland Emmerich joint), also imagining a terrorist attack on the White House; there will be the xenocide of Ender’s Game (Gavin Hood); the nepotism of After Earth (M. Night Shyamalan); the (weirdly) promising looking Elysium (Neil Blomkamp); Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski) . . . ; Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro), which looks like it will bomb; The World’s End (Edgar Wright), another eschatological buddy-movie; World War Z (Marc Forster), Brad Pitt’s “adaptation” of Max Brook’s compelling and interesting novel of the same name (2006) (that came out today and according to Vanity Fair the film looks to be wanting); and of course finally there is Man of Steel (dir. Zack Snyder, 2013), a film I’m still puzzling over, which imagined something like two trillion dollars in damage to downtown Metropolis. There are many more such films coming out this year.

Quite simply, 2013 is the year of disaster porn. It’s everywhere. It even comes in the guise of children’s fantasy. Transformers (1984-1987) and Action Comics (1939- ) have been repurposed into visions of Armageddon and mega-death. Think about this for a second.

More selfishly, this summer blockbuster movie season is yet another reminder that a critic of the writing of the disaster will never be out of work. We are in the age of frequent, diverse, ubiquitous, and excessive disaster. It is multiplying. This is the point. The multiplication of real or imagined disaster scenarios in contemporaneity requires its own archive. Trying to deal with the reality of this requires what I have been and will continue to call hyperarchival realism.

Archiving the Hyperarchive

A pretty great video about The Internet Archive is here. “Library of Alexandria 2.0 will exist for (hopefully) many more centuries than version 1.0 did.” And not only is The Internet Archive archiving the Internet, it’s trying to preserve real live books as well. “Burning books isn’t the problem; people get flooded–there’s so much information.” Hyperarchival realism, indeed.

Dissertation Defended

On a bit of a personal note, yesterday I defended my dissertation, “The Apocalypse Archive: American Literature and the Nuclear Bomb.” As I move now toward turning it into a book, the first thing I’m gonna change will probably be the title. Onward toward more nuclear criticism and hyperarchival realism.

Memory and the Baseball Archive

Over at the excellent Triple Canopy, Colby Chamberlain interviews Bryan Zanisnik, whose recent installation, “Every Inch a Man,” features Zanisnik “spend[ing] five hours a day, Thursday through Sunday, inside a Plexiglas booth, reading a copy of Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel (1973) while wearing goggles to protect his eyes from the baseball cards and outdated currency being blown about by the fans installed within the booth’s base.”

Zanisnik on the individualized baseball card (hyper)archive: “I was looking at [my baseball card] collection for the first time in probably twenty years, yet when I picked up individual cards I could remember all sorts of details: which position in the outfield someone played, which year he made the All-Star team. This physical interaction stirred up dormant long-term memories.From that point on, I began conceiving of these sets and installations as physical manifestations of childhood memory—albeit ones structured by commodity culture. It’s the visual and tactile qualities of these consumer objects that activate a set of memories for me and hopefully for others as well. ” “Baseball Card as Madeleine” indeed.

Bryan Zanisnik, 18 Years of American Dreams, 2010

Others Toward a Hyperarchival Realism (1.0)

As I’m sure will be more and more often, I’m finding examples of other people attempting to account for what I have recently been calling and will continue to call, with enthusiasm, “hyperarchival realism.”  (That said, I still am working through this term, so have yet to define it concretely or coherently. I imagine this will not be the case quite soon. Stay tuned.)

The first such example I will give (in what might perhaps go on to be a series of such examples) is a fairly interesting essay from the editors of n+1 on what they are calling “The Information Essay.” What they are talking about is precisely an example of hyperarchival realism.

Some Archival Metaphysics: Caprica and Digital Heaven

[Note: I’m not wholly satisfied w/ this post, but that has more to do w/ the fact I’m just beginning to formulate some of these questions/ideas, and they consequently are quite obviously not developed.]

The SyFy network’s recent attempt to capitalize on the success of Battlestar Galactica (Redux) ended fairly inauspiciously after only one season.  Caprica was canceled in October, 2010, and was off the air until SyFy “burned” the last five episodes on January 4th, 2011.  I only realized this a week later, and experienced the odd enjoyment that comes from watching five hours straight of a serial television show that ends coherently.

What I finally understood about Caprica in the end, something I was perhaps conscious of during its short run but didn’t really articulate to myself, was that I don’t really think the Caprica vs. BSG comparison is particularly interesting.  Yes, they’re clearly in the same universe, and are a compelling example of what Pawel Frelick calls a “dispersed narrative”[1] when considered together, but in terms of the aesthetic unity of their very different projects, it was always clear that Caprica’s production strove to distance itself from BSG, not only to attract new viewers (of course), but to create something stand-alone.  The various monetary reasons for such a goal aside, I not only appreciated this consistently, but it made the Caprica/BSG discussion slightly moot/obvious/metacritical/etc., because the show ultimately achieved being able to be considered on its own, and I think it did this primarily through having as its major point of intertextuality posthuman singularity narratives in general, rather than BSG specifically.  Sadly, it also failed to draw enough viewers to underwrite its fairly large budget.

Which, if there is an assessment to be made of the last episode, was ultimately in the show’s interest.  They were able to give a glimpse of “Things to Come” that was not only satisfying narratively, but implied more story.  W/ the dismal failures of final episodes in epic SF series of late (you know who you are), Caprica was refreshing in many, many ways.  (Which is also perhaps b/c it doesn’t have to end, but just give a glimpse of the future of the world the BSG franchise is building.)  But of course all of this is to say that though there may be some compelling discussions involving many aspects of this show, most of them are underscored by a persistent self-consciousness of not only SF conventions, but more importantly posthuman SF conventions; so I think it would be safe to say Caprica is entering into a posthuman discussion tropically: i.e. certain aspects of posthuman SF have enough widespread use at this point that we could categorize/list how Caprica draws from the posthuman archive.[2] Perhaps just such a list:

1)  Digital, simulated utopia/heaven.  Caprica projects the possibility for a space of limitless potential where immortality is a “reality.”  That this space is necessarily flawed is also part of the point.

2)  AI.  The emergence of AI, both in anthropomorphic terms and more machinic ones.  (This should probably be #1. . . .)

3)  Robots w/ guns.  Self-explanatory.

4)  Eerily contemporary in terms of dress/civilization, but of course aestheticized in some other historical time period, in this case the American 1950s.  The mobster stuff was cool, but difficult to care about other than its twist on Adama’s origin story, which, well, rests on the kid’s eye color.

5)  MMOs.

6)  Digital terrorists.

7)  A Media Mogul, in this case a protagonist.

8)  And though there are surely many others, the most important one for me: a sense of hyperarchival realism.[3]

Part of how I’m imagining hyperarchival realism as a project is that it not only attempts to underscore the posthumanity it is tropically imagining, but to do so in a fashion that shows a thorough fidelity to contemporaneity.  There is a seamless integration of technology and humans throughout Caprica (always of course blurring the distinction b/t the two), but, and this is the point, it achieves this integration mostly w/ technology we already have.[4] And the dominant technology is obviously information.

How information tech. plays in Caprica: Zoe, the AI “ghost” daughter of the Media Mogul father, has composed an informational-search-algorithm that convincingly passes the Turing test (in short), creating a digital “copy” of herself.  The original Zoe dies, the copy lives on (becoming a goddess in the virtual realm).  This copy of Zoe is achieved through pure information.  Original Zoe’s brain is not downloaded, inserted, copied, or in any other way invaded.  Copy Zoe emerges through a conglomeration of info.  In other words, she is a hyperarchival consciousness, emerging out of the gathering and interpretation of info.[5]

The major conflict of the show, esp. in terms of the historical and political past the BSG universe is trying to articulate, is finding and accessing this algorithm, this program, this info.  The Media Mogul father needs it to run his killer robots(/apps) more efficiently, and the terrorist monotheists need it to achieve what they call “Apotheosis”—which is a kind of digital rapture: you die in reality and then you immediately reappear as a copy of yourself in digital heaven—a landscape and program that is endlessly manipulable.[6]

And this is where the show I think really achieves something, it asks (and doesn’t answer the question), is this as good as a heaven we’ll ever get?  This space, the space of Apotheosis, is composed by the fringe monotheists in the polytheistic world of Caprica.  But the real question of the show should perhaps be, wouldn’t it precisely be the atheists who built such a place?  Those who didn’t participate in belief and faith, and just built an afterlife?  Would this not be better in some way?

The show says unequivocally no, but I think it does so for the wrong reasons.  Digital simulation is everywhere a part of the world of Caprica, something we never get a sense of in BSG.  The original was so steeped in a kind of posthuman steampunk (i.e. 1950s tech.), that to imagine a future world not more dominated by artificial landscapes seems slightly curious even these few years after BSG.

But what Caprica does do is ask the historically major metaphysical questions, and places them firmly upon a ground of information tech., upon the archive.  In this sense, in Caprica and other posthuman objects like it, metaphysics is now “archival metaphysics,” and this to me seems important, for though Caprica may not be doing anything terribly novel in the genre, b/c it is/was such a part of a major franchise, it is codifying the genre in a specific type of fashion, realizing that the old questions have to get asked all over again when the archive becomes a space in which to “live” an afterlife.  And really, hasn’t the archive always been such a place?

[1] Sorry, couldn’t find a link for this one.  He was the keynote speaker at the Science Fiction Research Association Conference in 2010, and delivered a talk called “Gained in Translation: Dispersed Narratives in Contemporary Culture,” where he outlined this term in great detail.  Perhaps the best example of what he is calling a dispersed narrative is Southland Tales, which tells its entire tale over a graphic novel and a film.  I’ve also thought that perhaps a better term for this would be “distributed narrative.”

[2] Of course I’m sure this has been done, and better than myself, but it should be noted that much of my thinking here is very larval at the moment.

[3] Note: I’m working on this term right now, so I do not quite have a coherent definition, but I am getting very close.

[4] This has been where William Gibson has been so strong as of late (w/ perhaps the exception of Zero History).  (Also, b/c I read it awhile ago and didn’t post anything, perhaps a lengthy archival quote chosen somewhat at random from ZH: “‘The holy grail of the surveillance industry is facial recognition.  Of course, they say it’s not.  It’s already here, to a degree.  Not operational.  Larval.  Can’t read you if you’re black, say, and might mistake you for me, but the hardware and software have potentials, awaiting later upgrade.  Though what you need to understand, to understand forgetting, is that nobody’s actually eyeballing much of what a given camera sees.  They’re digital, after all.  Stored data sits there, stored.  Not images, then, just ones and zeros.  Something happens that requires official scrutiny, the ones and zeros are converted to images.  But’—and he reached up to touch the edge of the bottom of the birdcage library—‘say there’s a gentleman’s agreement” [302] [Also, how cool would a bar called The Birdcage Library be?].)  (Also, it is not wholly the case that Caprica uses tech. we already have.)

[5] Also, Watson, the Jeopardy computer, is very scary w/r/t this.

[6] A minor plot question—if the tech. exists for this type of multiplicitous AI, why are there only 13 brands of human-looking Cylon in the original BSG?