A Ride Through Bi-Modern America

Reviews

A Ride Through Bi-Modern America

Arthur Kroker,
Spasm: Virtual Reality, Android Flesh (with companion CD).
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

John Noto

A decade that stretches before us like a shimmering uncertainty field in quantum physics: its politics intensely violent, yet strangely tranquil; its culture conspiracy-driven, yet perfectly transparent; its media seductive, yet always nauseous; its population oscillating between utter fascination and deep boredom; its overall mood retro-fascist, yet smarmingly sentimental.

SPASM is a book about virtual reality, android music, and electric flesh. Refusing to stand outside virtual reality (which is impossible anyway), this is a virtual book, half text/ half music. A floating theory that puts into writing virtual reality’s moment of flux as that point where technology acquires organicity, where digital reality actually comes alive, begins to speak, dream, conspire, and seduce.

So begins Arthur Kroker’s Spasm, a book and CD which are first and foremost a story of bi-modern America in the 1990’s, meaning the story of a people both immersed in the postmodern realm of cyberculture, where the human body is “invaded” by technology to the extent that persons and their electro-mechanical “prostheses” merge to form the cyborg/android of science-fiction, and critically distanced from it, questioning and attempting to foil the relentless progress of the computerized simulscape as it moves to monitor our minutest functioning in orgies of meaningless data collection and public opinion polls. Spasm is, simultaneously, the story of three artists: an electronic music composer, a photographer and a multi-media performer/installation creator, who delineate our descent into, and endeavors to frustrate, the space of virtual reality, that place where simulation overtakes the “real” and “true” and effectively substitutes for them. That state of affairs is already upon us in a society where the average TV viewing time per family per day is alleged to be upwards of eight hours. The conversion to virtual reality also manifests in subtler ways. Our language has been polluted by advertising and government propaganda with “doublespeak”, words which mean one thing but sound like another. Military jargon is particularly poignant here – to “liquidate” or “terminate” “personnel” means to kill people, often civilians, but sounds so much milder and works to soothe our adverse reaction to the deaths of children and grandmothers while promoting the drugged feeling of having been told a pleasant little white lie. Another example is magazine advertising. We are told, of a perfume, “This is cool”, captioned under a photo of a woman with an emotionally blank and distant stare, that of an automaton. Yet, she is a “sign” (a representation) of smooth seduction; perhaps she is about to ensnare her mate with the cold calculation of a radar dish, embellished, of course, with the proper fashion accoutrements! We know somewhere, dimly, in the backs of our minds that this has little bearing on “real” love relationships, but, after all, they are so terribly messy. Maybe the simulation is better, more easily disposable if it goes awry.

The three artists each in his/her own medium facilitate a more visceral understanding of where this kind of thinking came from and where it goes when taken to its logical (and illogical) conclusions. They each portray the tension of trying to hold on to one’s humanity, one’s conscience, one’s sensitivity, in an era of high velocity interaction, techwar and nerve-deadening noise on every bandwidth in every sensory mode.

A woman named Linda Dawn Hammond photographs denizens of the urban underground – the pierced, the tattooed, the shaved, the leather-bound, with a view which emphasizes their usage of the signs and symbols of primitive ornamentation and scarification in a hypermodern plumage display signaling the “disappearance” of the organic body and the birth of interchangeable android bodies, sites for both self-immolation in the desecrated flesh and for limitless excess:

Fully cinematic bodies who transform every orifice into a spectral special effect… A carnival of decomposition (of the old body) where the past rituals of fetishism are first scavenged for their totemic signs, and then hard-wired into the skin of techno-mutants as its emblematic screen-effect.

It’s as though these young “children” of high-tech have chosen to electrify their own flesh with the most primal adornments transforming them into a kind of liquid-crystal display status: the body as electronic billboard, flashing, violent, powerful and ultimately meaningless, yet existing in a splendid state of rebellion against the stifling oppression of “normal” dress and decorum. The body sacrificed to explode the myth of non-conformity-as-death! Pierced nipples may not be showing up in the financial district anytime soon, but beware the officemate who browses Heavy Metal magazine at lunch and collects latexwear catalogues. He/she may represent the first wave of cybernauts suffusing every nook and cranny of the urban-global village with the cynical humor of their own mutation.

The artist David Therrien creates machines which function autonomously, with human cogs and fodder. In his installations/ performances there is much noise and violence with real human bodies (including his own) often bearing the brunt of clapping steel plates, near-blinding flashes of light and brief but powerful electric shocks. He has volunteered his own body as a crashtest dummy for limit-testing experimentation:

where we can finally see on the outside of Therrien’s suicided body what is happening to us on the inside as we are dipped on a daily basis through the violent, but invisible, fields of high-technology… the body as a sampler machine editing and re-editing… a flared-out theatre of S/M that has the digital codes of the gallery of machines tattooed on its flesh.

In one of his performances, two performers struggle against each other on top of a machine, unaware that their movements are causing a third individual imprisoned below to be swung back and forth into electrified steel plates also setting off a 32,000 watt light display thirty feet below him/her. Heavy industrial music intensifies the aspect of a struggle toward some impossible escape. The effect of such installations, though devastating, is oddly cathartic. As Therrien himself is quoted as saying:

When I get in the machine, I think it’s time for a good ride now, for an experience of some type. But there is always a certain betrayal. It’s a carnival ride at the edge of ecstasy and terror, painful but enjoyable.

Therrien’s work (still photos included in the text) is definitely not for children or the faint-hearted.

Steve Gibson is the whiz-kid behind Spasm‘s CD. He works with a digital sampler and computer sequencer to produce what I must say is one of the more interesting compendiums of musical and non-musical sounds I’ve encountered. Unlikely to top or even appear as a footnote on the charts, the CD is rather a jarring and disorienting yet fascinating wall-of-sound improvisation including everything from George Bush speech excerpts to reverberations recorded inside grain elevators to hip-hop and speed metal riffs and an assortment of futuristic geeps, thuds and drones – a draining but enriching study in saturation, not dissimilar from that encountered on the main thoroughfares of North American cities, though more selective, edgy and textured than one may ordinarily encounter by chance. I found it quite stimulating, but then I’m a man who thrives on ambiguity, novelty and David Lynch films.

Kroker also takes up a discussion of various other subcultural phenomena in the book, such as transexualism (his “recombinant brother” Toni Denise is a drag queen with complete female equipment – “a man-made woman”, literally, a woman too perfect to be a real woman – a virtual woman!), radical cosmetic surgery and “looped history” This last is his label for the CNN and nightly news TV program approach to current events which repeats the same socially conditioned metaphors of nostalgia, fear, humor, nationalistic pride, etc. every half-hour changing only the sampled contents of “news scraps” (sound bytes) coming over the next satellite horizon.

He ends the book with a discussion of his similarities and differences with the French postmodern theorist and cult-figure of the avant-garde literati, Jean Baudrillard. For Kroker, the post-structural “Empire of the Sign” (in which the “sign” that stands for a thing becomes more salient in human psychic commerce than the thing itself) and even Baudrillard’s more advanced notion that we live in a world of simulcra, fully operational models of “real” world events/emotional states, which seduce and reverse each other’s meanings in a realm so divorced from the traditional “real” that the world we thought we knew becomes a mere shadow or epiphenomenon, are obsolete. He maintains that all such interactions have disappeared (are enveloped) in an energy field which directly plugs the primitive human libido into the currents of technoculture without mediation of any kind. This occurs via endless image-and-style viruses flooding from the media out into the zealous body-politic of American pragmatism hell-bent on speed and instantaneous pleasure. Kroker believes this cross-flow must be purely digital, a kind of quantum dynamo of flashing electron-totems signaling each other in an accelerated dance of sleepless torpor through the endlessly ecstatic night unto death (or as he refers to it, “the moment of zero-culture”). In this scenario, the human body, devoid of depth psychologies and antiquated social theories, becomes a screen for the display of its own purely virtual economy, “a processed life in the electronic void”. Here all the big “signifiers”, or discourses, of old, such as those of politics, history and sex exist only at the level of recycled “information”, video-games and pure speed.

Not a pretty picture, but in Kroker’s eyes, not a particularly sad one either, but simply a new reality to adapt to and be adapted by while at the same time fighting for every last breath of authentic experience in a depleted, subtly homogenized environment. Post-modern theorists,including Kroker, provide us at last with a vocabulary with which to creatively and critically distance ourselves from, and so always alter, the hidden and contradictory flows of pulsing billboard directives operating to blind us from own healthy scepticism. These directives work just below the shiny surface of cynical culture in the revolving battery of advertising and aimless rounds of competition and virtual war (as in the Persian Gulf – a model war perfectly suited for adaptation to the video arcade, savagely brutal but strangely “irreal”). He identifies himself finally with the later Baudrillard, an evasive thinker who would not pin himself to the “left” or “right” politically and eventually renounced most of his own social theory in favor of a kind of resistance to all theory. In the end, Baudrillard has become a self-cancelling sacrificial figure, beholden to no one, the perfect metaphor for the individual in contemporary culture, awash in a sea of shimmering contradictions. Yet, this individual in his/her resistance to every outside attempt to classify him/her redeems him/herself at the point of ultimate rebellion: the failure to fit any mold imposed from above or below by virtue of evasive agility and the relentless human desire to elude and frustrate authority (as in the notorious tendency of people to purposefully fabricate answers in public opinion polls).

For Kroker this spirit is epitomized by the “American way” – sectarian, pragmatic, technological:

The American self is the world’s first virtual self: always inventing and reinventing its identity… and finding in the practical fact of citizenry in the empire of technology the fulfillment of human destiny.

One of North America’s leading experts on French postmodern social theory, Kroker’s credentials are impeccable, but his hyperbolic enthusiasm for the subject matter sometimes carries him a bit too swiftly toward untried and sometimes incautiously reasoned conclusions. Some of his leaps from the works of philosophers such as Hume and Nietzsche to the conjectured world of “android processors” are a little too quick and sketchy for my tastes, but he remains unafraid to contradict himself if he becomes too dogmatic in any argument and always retains a wry, absurd sense of humor. The book meanders in an engaging way that mimics the staccato chaos of the mediascape without falling prey to its random meaning-vortex. At times prone toward an unabashedly self-promotional writing style, Kroker and his cohorts (two chapters devoted to explicating the CD are written by musician/composer Steve Gibson) acquit themselves nicely in terms of originality and healthy skepticism, providing the reader/listener with entirely new and useful insights into the impossibly-difficult to sort matrix of lifestyles, global circumstance and accelerating change. They should also be congratulated for taking the plunge into a difficult-to-pull-off (and difficult to sell to a traditional book publisher!) multi-media effort. I believe posterity bear out their wisdom. Kroker’s swagger may be attributed to the fact that he is also a performer and maniacal lecturer in his own multi-media shows, often traveling to other cities and “crashing” event-scenes with his troupe of beyond-cyberpunks.

I must admit that some of what Kroker portrays as the “cutting edge” of contemporary culture (pierced and tattooed bodies, shaved heads, sampler music) seem already rather tired out to me, but… I live in San Francisco. I’m not altogether certain where the rest of North America stands with these trends. All the foregoing qualifications aside, I am still able to heartily recommend Spasm as a heady, exhilarating ride and guide to the world awaiting us just inside the nascent 21st century. At any rate, I’m sure many folks may consider the sections on “Madonna Mutant”, Michael Jackson “recombinant” (“A Lamb of God for the electronic age”) and “Dead Elvis” (“no one knows better than Elvis that… dead sex is the very best sex of all.”) worth the price of admission alone.