Friday, January 8, 2016

"The Machine Stops" ed. Erik Wysocan: Book Review


This anthology reprints the well-known 1909 novella by E.M. Forster along with ten contemporary contributions from writers pursuing what Donna Haraway coins as "cyber politics". This concerns the struggle for language against a perfect articulation of its communication. Noise and pollution, as Haraway explains in the preface, represent a joy in the "illegitimate fusions of animal and machine".

Forster's "The Machine Stops" follows Vashti and her son, Kuno, in a future anticipating instant messaging and the Internet. Living underground, humans rely on master machine to meet their needs. Kuno confesses to his mother that he has glimpsed a world above the surface where people live free. But, threatened by the penalty of homelessness, Kuno must accept the omnipotence of the Machine, now worshiped as a deity. Its Mending Apparatus, however, begins to break down, and global chaos ensues. The final sentence of the 12,300 word tale illustrates Forster's command of his prose: "For a moment they saw the nations of the dead, and, before they joined them, scraps of the untainted sky."
Unfortunately. the modern entries placed after the novella cannot compare to Forster's eloquence. This Halmos edition lacks any introduction or rationale, other than reprinting a few pages from Haraway's 1991 article "A Cyber Manifesto". The contents from today's authors prove uneven.

One promising section is the story "Letters to the Machine" (2014) by Julieta Arenda, Fia Backstrom and R. Lyon. This experiments with typefaces and self-references to document how humans try to evade, with decreasing success, an omniscient surveillance system. One thinks of the increasing monitoring of electronic and personal communication by employers, governments, spy devices, social media and corporations to apply to this fiction, and it is not far from Panopticon fact at all.

Pedro Neves Marquez applies another emerging technology, 3-D printing, to recyclable gun production. "The Liberator" (2014) invents "assassination markets" for those using these weapons, and extrapolates from open-source codes a realm where primitivism, anarcho-libertarianism and the deep Net fight back against multinationals and the security state. Virtual arenas get sabotaged along with real ones. Ecosystems emerge and the Cargills and Monsantos find themselves outwitted.

"#NoHorizon: We Have Never Been How We Became: A Manifesto" (2012-2014) takes up another rebellion, post-Occupy. Jeff Nagy's rambling speculations roam back into the revolutionary Levellers of England's mid-seventeenth century. He links this dissenting movement to Haraway's methodology. Nagy tries to connect John Milton, Gilles Deleuze, Bruno Latour, Norbert Wiener and Katherine Hayles along a timeline of how humans confront a mechanical power, and how cybernetics through its challengers may resist this apocalyptic or milennarian takeover. But a postscript, after what Nagy perceives as Occupy's failure, cautions. "Occupy made visible the bars of a certain grid of control even if it did not shake them. That grid has now closed around us again, even more tightly." He reasons: "It never opened but it closed again. That is its logic precisely. There's nothing to see here but everything is visible." Nagy's pronouncements may strike some as gnomic, others as tautological.

These three contributions represent the highlights. Seven other entries failed to match their insights. The placement of an editor's name only at the back of the book appears a half-hearted attempt to convince the reader that these transmissions exist as if clandestine or samidzat missives, needing no mediator's intrusion. But their purpose would have better succeeded if the audience were guided to find connections or ruptures between Forster's fiction and the facts and fiction following it here. (Spectrum Culture 1-12-16)

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