Theory-Fiction: Horror, Computation, Hybrid Forms

Computation is a logic of culture, and so also a logic of design.
-Benjamin Bratton

Beginning to reread and take notes on Benjamin H. Bratton’s, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty a book he tells us “is both technical and theoretical. It is unapologetically interdisciplinary in its perspective and its project; it is a work of political philosophy, and architectural theory, and software studies, and even science fiction”.  I would only add to the mix the various hybrid forms of speculative horror, abstract horror, or conceptual horror that weaves in science and the affective overlays with concept and idea engendering a transitional mode that can longer be reduced to the classic objective/subjective literature of fear and terror we’ve known for so long.

As Bratton says in the first paragraph his work “draws links between technologies, places, processes, and cultures that may exist at different scales but which are also deeply interrelated. In this crisscross, we observe that “computation” does not just denote machinery; it is planetary-scale infrastructure that is changing not only how governments govern, but also what governance even is in the first place. Computation is a logic of culture, and so also a logic of design. It is both how our culture designs and is itself that which we need to design better, but to do that we need to take a step back and view an emerging big picture that is different from what has been predicted. We may glimpse that another model of political geography is cohering before our eyes. What can we do with it? What does it want from us? The answers depend on our theories and tools, on our models and codes.”1

What Bratton is speaking to is a return to distancing as against those like Baudrillard whose notions of integral reality as the immersive immediacy without distance of thought, value, and feeling left us in a world of pure appetitive consumption repeating the inane gestures of our ancestral nightmares on a much more abstract level. Our need to step back out of the immersive field of postmodern culture and theory is one that admits such anti-realism led us into a dead alley. The minimalist fiction of a Beckett or a Carver gave us the bone dry corpse of a depleted culture and civilization on its last legs. With such authors there was no place to go but into the dustbin of history, or to find another path out of the zero point world of meaninglessness. What we discovered is horror; for in horror one is led to that point where everything is meaningless, but that in itself is meaningful. So with the bottom of the barrel we found meaning sitting there like a shadow god, an amorphous and ambivalent slime-fest of a forgotten world where darkness and chaos once again gave us something to hold onto – even if it was the nothingness of this empty universe.

In horror we once again found a way to step back and gaze into the sewers of creation where the black light of the cosmos stared back from a cold and indifferent abyss. Without this ability to distance oneself from either environment or inner experience we are nothing more than ignorant breeders of bodily functions, habits, opinions. Distance allowed us to make decisions that would otherwise fall into the brain’s own circuits like endless feedback loops that have no redress or stop gap  or other intermediary agent, act, or event to stop the endless processes of thought churning in the neuralclades of our meaty brain. Isn’t consciousness a heuristic device that the brain itself constructed out of selective processes; a kludgy make-shift accident of some environmental impact in our woebegone Darwinian heritage that awakened us to this sense of distance – this possible delusionary feeling that we exist and know it, and that we can see an outside and an inside – know that others like ourselves exist, too. That we’re suddenly cut off from the world, thrown back on our own resources of knowing and feeling, of ‘give and take’ responses and momentary feelings of pain, fear, anger, happiness, disgust… etc., all the bodily habits and opinions; as well as the shared sense of belonging to others in some mysterious way, even though we cannot know what they feel, what they think; and, yet, we surmise, we fictionalize, we tell ourselves stories of how we feel, what we think: ask questions, teach lessons, show comfort or judgment about what is acceptable or not within the world of others we share this thing, this life, this existence with?

Even if we reduce all this to a more theoretical or scientific jargon does that actually simplify and abstract these processes in a way that truly helps us define ourselves, build better lives, etc. Or has all this refinement of language, philosophy, science only forced us into even more immersive and virtualized modes of being and thinking, restricted the questions we can ask because of the rules and regulations, the games of discursive and analytical procedures, methodologies, practices; or analytical and linguistic forms of matheme or natural discourse? Are we at last more handicapped by our sophisticated knowledge systems, and less able to interact with our environment than an aboriginal kindred, those clans and indigenous populations in the Amazon basin or Australian outback or Inuit frontiers of the North? Has the complexity of our knowledge base itself led to this ‘computational infrastructure’ of which Bratton’s work is an exploration? Has it become as well a prison for our mental modes of thinking and being, a problem rather than a solution in our ongoing environmental and civilizational conflicts, adaptations, politics?

During the anti-realist postmodern era the simulated culture of forecasting, prediction, and mathematical modeling of future realties, trends, outcomes (i.e., such as climate change, etc.) pervaded both at the level of academic disciplines and scientific research programs. But much of this though needful has ended in controversy and dead ends, with the acknowledgement of faulty algorithms and human error as to interpretation of the data. So that in our time the vast storehouses of multi-dimensional databases, and government or academic institutions, much less the corporate and global forecasting systems that rely on such algorithms have in some cases led to faulty and error prone outcomes and devastating impacts on humanity and the environment alike.

When Bratton tells us that this planet-wide infrastructure of computation is already in place and churning away at our very human condition, our politics, our forecastings, our logistics, our very global civilization we have to step back and wonder where is this taking us? As he asks: What can we do with it? What does it want from us? The answers depend on our theories and tools, on our models and codes. What struck me in that second question is the notion that this world-wide computational system might “want from us”; as if it were ‘intelligent’ and was seeking its own agendas, and worse that those agendas might not include us. What does it want from us? Indeed. That truly is the sixty-five million dollar question, isn’t it? With our blind obedience to all these various movements into robotics, Artificial life and Intelligence: deep learning algorithms, etc., the machines are gaining on us moment by moment, and it is only matter of time (whether in twenty of a hundred years) before they surpass us on the intelligence spectrum.

We laugh about it, think about it; fear it, seek it; and, most of all we see it as Factor X – the Unknown. That something that we can speculate about but cannot provide answers. It’s just here where speculative or transreal horror meets science, and the older forms of horror based on the old entropic sciences of Lovecraft’s cosmic horrorism, or the Ligottian inner experience of a melting unreal world of horror all give way to a new type of horror: one that blends both our ancient fear of dolls, puppets, and automatons; and, the fear of superior intelligence, alien and unbound by sufficient Reason and our strict scientific methods. We tells ourselves nice little stories that we can sleep at night, stories that we will be able to control such things when the time comes, that we’ll not let it get out of hand. All nice and comforting… yet, those others among us who are more pessimistically inclined ask the “What if…” of horror scenarios that don’t end well for humanity, not at all.

It’s this sense of cross-pollination and fictionalizing theory that’s beginning more and more to intrigue me. We’ve (or, at least I have!) been doing this for a number of years. Philosopher’s have termed what many of them are doing as “philo-fiction,” which blends the speculative with theory in unforeseen ways. To me this is a sign we are trying to break free of the overly restricted academic analytic and continental frames that have imposed certain conceptual limits on thought. A good thing in itself, these new authors whether in philosophy, science, sociology, politics, or any number of disciplines see a need to formulate if not an eclectic synthesis, then at least an exploration of the diversity of our many perspectives (a good Nietzschean stance, even if not restricted to hermeneutics or interpretation).

I’ve seen that in David Roden’s recent explorations on Enemy Industry as he tries various narrative approaches of weaving a dark phenomenology constructed out of different philosophical and scientific, even transdisciplinary areas of thought and fiction. This seems a trend in the coming years that will obviously affect the more standard flow into sub-genres such as abstract horror, sci-fi, transgressive fiction, bizzaro, weird, etc. One can imagine monstrous amalgams of theory and speculative science. Of course some of this was done by those like Italo Calvino, Stanislaw Lem, Jorge-Luis Borges, and many others in the 20th Century, but with a more anti-realist and textually oriented mode of meta-fictional theory and practice rather than the type of transrealist horror or ongoing incorporation of life into theory that we see happening in these newer thought forms. Either way exciting time to be reading and writing…

Bratton makes a very Viconian observation:

Thinking with tools, and in this case, working with the fixed capital of advanced technologies, is a good thing. It is part of the genesis of our species. It is how we mediate the world and are mediated by it; we become what we are by making that which in turn makes us.1

Against Descartes principle that verum et factum convertuntur, that “the true and the made are…convertible,” or that “the true is precisely what is made” (verum esse ipsum factum), Giambattista Vico would reject Descartes’ famous first principle that clear and distinct ideas are the source of truth: “For the mind does not make itself as it gets to know itself,” Vico observes, “and since it does not make itself, it does not know the genus or mode by which it makes itself” (DA, 52). Thus the truths of morality, natural science, and mathematics do not require “metaphysical justification” as the Cartesians held, but demand an analysis of the causes – the “activity” – through which things are made (DA, 64).

Yet, as an article on Inverse by Joe Carmichael suggests, speaking of the impact of movies on shaping contemporary cityscapes as an example, says:

“…the ideas of science fiction resonate very powerfully with how contemporary cities are shaped. Another example might be the designs of Shanghai’s Pudong district, where there’s a very palpable sense of Blade Runner-esque atmospheres. Blade Runner itself was partly shaped by Ridley Scott’s ideas about oriental urbanism and slightly orientalist treatments of street life in the supposedly futuristic Los Angeles. And ideas about Blade Runner are clearly influencing Chinese elites’ ideas about urban futurism.”

Urban Future commenting on this would say,

It does seem like asking whether the chicken or the egg came first, in that sometimes it’s sci-fi inspiring our cityscapes, and other times it’s our cityscapes inspiring sci-fi.

It’s reciprocal. There isn’t an obvious start point for this.

This sense of the interdependence of fiction and reality, both reinforcing the other in a time-loop retroactive participation of making and being made within an ongoing computational system of algorithmic culture reduplication and remediation all fits snuggly in our speculative age of theory-fiction. Instead of Descartes ‘convertability’ of making and made, we get the ‘reciprocal’ interoperability of different time-scaped modalities in which now one mode, now the other take the lead.

As I began thinking through scenarios of Sci-Fi Horror of this computational and algorithmic infrastructure opening up various weird and horrific impacts on the human condition (i.e., the coming automation society, the AGI’s – Artificial General Intelligence impact, Smart or Sentient Cities, etc.), I began wondering how this incorporates in real-world horror scenarios of “What goes wrong if…” type. All those little details and unforeseen aspects of our immersion in software and the error prone code of viral and violent systems let loose not through any hacker’s planned initiation, but through some process of artificial natural selection – a Darwinian hybrid of self-selection taken to the nth degree under an accelerating sociocultural system converging toward this ill-defined Singularity?

In works like the Iranian philosopher, Reza Negarestani, in his Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials we see this sense of a larger unknown, an entity, object, or infrastructure deep within the planet; a sort of Lovecraftian update to the Cuthulhu mythos, but this time with the commodity of oil and petroleum as the massive system of horror in the depths that seems to have worked its power, fascination, and lures on humanity across vast stretches of time. In his work these notions of theory-fiction, philo-fiction, hybrid horror and sci-fi all seem to gel into something different or uncanny: something old and familiar returning to us out of the depths. Many other examples abound: the Scikungfi Trilogy by D. Harlan Wilson; Thomas Ligotti’s latest additions; S.J. Bagley’s Thinking Horror;  Livia Llewellyn’s Furnace; Jeff Vandemeer’s recent Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy… one could go on and on… this is just a start, one could add another hundred and keep going. All of these exploring the atmospheric conditions of horror, the impossible relations left out of the equation by most reasoning systems of thought and philosophy.

Horror delves between-the-lines, in the cracks and crevices of the world, the hidden places, and indirect paths to between the real and unreal without confusing the two or fusing them in some erroneous and false security system of belief. Horror like all fantastic literature leads the wary reader into the cracks in the world without pretention, without any other goal than letting this reader feel the fear and terror of existence vicariously if not in fact and deed. It’s by way of vicarious causality, of that meeting of reader and the ‘thing’ – unknown or known through some indirect objective or subjective relation in a new personal relation that exposes the wary reader to degradation and corruption that is the aesthetic appeal of horror in all its dark splendor.

Thinking of the meeting of sci-fic and horror in a mixed or hybrid genre is such a relation. A way of dealing with the future that seems to be imploding toward us out of the inhuman and nonhuman or more-than-human future. As more and more as these advanced algorithmic systems of deep-learning or more advanced self-learning and self-adapting systems speed up and accelerate beyond human control there may be a point of no return, of this sort of lift-off effect that Lem in some of his more pessimistic fables speaks of in which our creations will in turn begin to reinvent humanity not in our image, but in the image of the machinic systems themselves. What happens then? What if these nonhuman systems are far more nuanced and efficient as predicting our behavior, our modes of questioning and answering those questions, of outsmarting us and letting us assume we have everything well in hand when in fact it is the subtle machinations of these advanced intelligent systems that have begun to carefully shape, guide, transform, and use us as mere tools to further their own hidden agenda and telos? What then? It’s just here that a speculative horror or sci-fi horror hybrid could begin to envision scenarios and answers, or at least to ask more and more difficult questions even if they lead to darker and inhuman answers.

  1. Benjamin H. Bratton. The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Software Studies) (Kindle Locations 217-224). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

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