Sunday, November 24, 2013

Technopolis and the glamour of dark futures

Departure (from where it all began)
The ways graphic, cinematic and literary art envisage the future of humanity still connects to a modernist, and at times almost phobist, fixation on darker arcs. Dreaming of electric sheep or confronting mechanical terminators is just an angle to this claustrophobic – but never obsolete – scenario of having to live in dystopian frames, ultra-exclusive urban landscapes that mirror real social zoning, and through corporate policies that flavour everyday interaction with whispers and ocular symbols of conspiracy. Fear is here coterminous with repetition and lack of change as encroaching ailment – an incurable disease collectively afflicting the dispossessed and threatening to spread to privileged populations. But physical disease is just a metaphor. It is significant that Raymond Williams’ (1973) much-debated binarism between the city and the village is absent from such audio-visual scenarios. Cityscapes and technocracy dominate human horizons, drafting the rules of our participation in the pólis (as city, state and society). It seems as if we never had an intimate, inescapable relationship with nature.
Science fiction films nicely encapsulate this recurring metaphor.  Indeed, from the rise of The Terminator genre of man-machine intersubjective conflict;  to the migrant and racial allegories in Children of Men and District 9; Avatar’s lament of human destruction of alien indigeneity; Casshern’s impossibility to rescue political solidarity from greed; and Elysium’s critique of class and health inequalities, nature is erased from collective memory. In other words, the postmodern dialogics of Enlightenment dictate a move away from Nature and towards technocratic perceptions of the Environment (Ingold 2000). Peculiarly, however, the future of humanity is crowned with an environmental ambiance that still resembles modernity’s industrial soot, whereas at the same time constant aerial traffic in such plots suggests automobility’s complete triumph over ecosystemic balance.

Nature’s place in artistic imagination
What might have condemned (at least since the release of Lang’s Metropolis) several generations of literary and cinematic artists to repeat this audio-visual leitmotif of hyperbolic darkness (for, film music composers usually follow suit in such futuristic articulations)? The paradox of symbolising our progressive mastering of natural danger, our prosperity and technological advancement in grim moral colourations suggests a return to classical thanatotourist themes. There is a constant fear that diverse mobilities (of migrants, industrial and post-industrial workers, viruses, or even alien species) will destroy human harmony – an ironic recurrence, given that the allegedly threatened privilege is all about socio-cultural change and ‘movement’.
 And there is more: such imagined visits to sites of imminent death (of human solidarity, bonding with nature and rurality) via encounters with technology (terminators, cybernetic monsters or urban surveillance structures) speak the language of heterotopia. Unlike utopia - the non (:) or good (:) place (:tópos) of futurology and social theory - heterotopia is the ‘other’ place. This héteron (:othering) of tópos (:place) involves intentional misplacement of time-space levels, enabling human actors to re-arrange experience and re-conceptualise phenomena (Foucault 1986: 16–17). Cinematic heterotopias suggest that the goodness of nature (and human nature) has migrated elsewhere in the future, leaving us bereft of human(-ist) qualities, more mechanic than human. 

Back home to (in) the future
What exit strategy is left after such a damning verdict? The original symptom of futuristic fear, artistic creation, is called upon to weave nostalgic tales of redemption. And we, the faithful fans, redeem through novel-reading, cinema-watching or music-listening the nóstos (:the journey back home, whether this be the family, nature or the ‘source’ of our humanity) that causes this heart-throbbing (:álgos). We ache collectively for a return to a time when the fear of social plagues was absent and we enjoyed the benefit of peace, harmony and unchallenged inner order. Does this not encapsulate the original travel in paradox, during which the Edenic Garden is always eluding grasp despite our centuries-long effort to relocate it on earth?

Foucault, M. (1986) ‘Of other spaces’, Diacritics, 16(1): 22-7.
Ingold, T. (2000) The Perception of the Environment. London: Routledge.
Williams, R. (1973) The Country and the City. London: Chatto and Windus.


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