Welcome folks; this way in, okay?
It’s something I keep saying (and why I keep linking to the most incoherent and longwinded shit I ever wrote is beyond me, honestly, but there it is once again) about the SF staple we call “the post-apocalyptic world”, because it’s both obvious and overlooked: that after the Apocalypse, we survivors are living in its world, and not our own. Though naturally it used to be ours.
And all science fiction is about the present, not the future, but…
…But you know, I think it’s possible we say that a little too much. Say it too much, and as a result we think too little about what it means. “Science fiction’s about the present, not the future”, so okay…
What’s it saying, then?
Here’s a thing I noticed recently, in the dark days of the Exploded Computer that saw me write half-a-dozen posts I may never get to, before finally posting one that probably was never going to be much more than half-baked at best…although, you know, now the deed’s been done I feel I ought to try to find the method in my own madness…
…Which is — uh, the thing I noticed, I mean — that I noticed that there was a new bar down the street. Or rather, an old bar under new ownership, now trumpeting its “New Pub Concept”. This, for those of you who may not be familiar with the syndrome, is basically a combination of fancier food, a more impressive arsenal of liquors at the high edge of possible spending, some distressed “old-timey” accoutrements lying around, “modern” music, and most importantly FLATSCREENS EVERYWHERE. Man, I’ve just never seen such a high flatscreen-to-square-footage ratio, you know. They had a Cray in the basement of the place running them all, a clean room with retina scans and chin-tilt biometrics accurate to within a picometer, webs of blue light everywhere. The very highest of high, high New Pub Concept technology.
And over the bar, a red LED news-scroller announcing “New Pub Concept! We Want To Be Your New Neighbourhood Watering-Hole, A Place To Chill Out And Relax!” While the modern music blasted, the UFC matches filled the air with blazing light, and the repros of old newspapers nodded knowingly from the walls. Ab-so-lutely schiztastic!
But it was that LED scroller that was the damnedest thing of all.
It didn’t say anything as interesting as I’ve given it to say here, actually; truth be told, it was not much of a conversational entre that it was scrolling out. I can’t really even remember what it said. The name of the place, sure; maybe something faintly non-sequitur-ish about the burgers and the beer, or the music. In my memory the approximate content was a lot like:
…New Pub Concept…What’s Happening!…New Pub Concept…What’s Happening!…
Yeah, that’s a lot closer.
It’s a funny thing about that LED scroller. Given the colossal amounts of cash and semiconductors thrown at every other aspect of the place, I had to wonder what it was doing there. Was it really an old-fashioned LED scroller, or was it just made to look like one? It did seem slightly technologically incompatible with the rest of the place, like everything else was James Cameron and it was Ralph Bakshi…but then, if it was just a simulation, then what on Earth was it simulating? And if it was real, then why was it real?
Why was it this real thing, instead of some other real thing?
I think this history of it’s all pretty straightforward. As we all know, once upon a time the LED scroller was the very reeking essence of What Is High Tech, or what looks like the Future…this was a time just after that cool old “computer font” disappeared, that thing that sort of looked like the kind of graffiti Mr. Spock might have left on the walls of Vulcan’s subway system, probably a thing worth investigating in its own right in the history of pop typography…and is there any other kind of typography, really…?
But it was part of a different design era, I think. This kind of iconography was just “finding” itself in the real world, finding itself in the hands of people who made real devices and real places for real people, rather than suggestive sigils for science-fictional scenarios that were based on real devices, that were extrapolated from real human uses, and so the aims of things like the LED scroller were a bit different from the aims of all the crap Rudy Wells had in his lab. By the late Seventies even the more nouveau TV computers, all slanted banks of skittering lights rather than boxy tape-containers with big fat bulbs on ’em, were starting to look more like kitsch than conjecture…because as electronic gear moved more steadily into the hands of real people, the look of their fictional counterparts started to become more irrelevant. Something perhaps a bit similar can be gleaned from looking at past design era’s conceptions of what space-suits “of the future” might look like; many of them still look charming today, but hardly cutting-edge. In fact we can barely remember a time when technology was quite so neutral as to produce future-visions such as those simple, voiceless, soulless “suits”. In the Eighties things took a sharp turn toward the interactive, the interfunctional and interpenetrated, the “hi-touch”, and it wasn’t by accident then any more than it’s by accident now — because it was always the world we inhabited, that shaped the design of the futures we imagined. So, that LED scroller…the thing about it was, it was supposed to be friendly. Obedient, inviting, comforting.
The real question, again, is why. What was it about that device’s use that made it important to be seen as possessing such qualities? I mean…was it just random typography, or what?
Well, clearly it was not. Here’s where I first saw the stuff, and you can tell me if this is where you saw it too: large public buildings.
Large public buildings.
This doesn’t really crack the nut yet, either. Are there just things called “large public buildings”? No; there are always reasons for each one of them, and the reasons usually have to do with governments. Bridges and tunnels and ferries and airports and train stations: the large public buildings are always signs of large public expenditures on large public projects. People-moving, mostly; as one of government’s biggest jobs is finding ways to move larger and larger of numbers of people around from place to place. From home to work, from work to school, on time and on schedule and above all on-message. Taxpayer dollars and public relations, megaprojects and elections: at a certain very base level it’s about pure mechanical efficiency. You build a large industrial environment out of concrete and steel, put a funnel at one end and a spout at the other. But you don’t just do that; to do that and no more would be suicide. You need a few potted plants in there, too. You need some nice chrome for people to see their reflections in, like you need some soft corners and dark carpets here and there to blunt echoes too. They used to do it with brass and marble and stained-glass windows, but as time moves on so does efficiency, of course — and you find ways and ways to make the bearability of the big industrial intake valves easier to clean, maintain, replace. Sometimes efficiency means hiding a lot of things in plain sight, hanging lanterns and drawing shades. We people are always all in this together, after all; and steps must be taken to ensure that where we meet, and get moved, our moods can be managed.
None of this is exactly conspiracy-theory stuff, you understand. It’s just a matter of learning the lessons of history. Or rather, of architecture.
Or rather, of literature.
The anxieties that modernity brings are hardly new, hardly obscure. The cautionary tales of science fiction in particular have given us a nice hundred-year-deep examination of those problems and pressures, and not only that but they’ve indicated ways to alleviate modernity’s stress, precisely by sketching out exactly what it is and exactly how it works. Oh, you’ll find it in Angel Pavement too, but not as clearly schematized as it is in The Machine Stops; and you’ll certainly be conscious of its presence in The Grapes Of Wrath, but if you’re looking for a prescription rather than a mere diagnosis, then you’ll probably be a bit more interested in 1984. Possibly Brave New World on the side, just to round things out. Lord Of The Flies? Oh, absolutely; but don’t neglect the somewhat less Nobel-worthy charms of Foundation while you’re browsing around…
The point being: that we do, actually, know how to do all this. How to warm the textures and cool the exhausts. It is, of course, not at all an easy job: who among us can look on rush hour in a major city and think “nope, no lemmings here!” But people are good at adapting, too, if you just give them something to rally around inside their heads. Often it doesn’t take much. For goodness’ sake, potted plants at the ferry terminal! It’s next door to totally stupid, but it does work if you just let it.
And by now you’re probably wondering where I’m going with all this. Okay, fair enough.
Those LED scrollers…they were for telling you when your boat, train, plane, whatever was coming in. So you could go home, you know? A welcome announcement, a mass relief…if you look at them carefully, and consider what they might have been, you’ll see the letters that spell out the happy news are surprisingly polite and reassuring. Somewhere along the line, it went from angular bars spelling out least-energy impossible-to-read digits on your wrist, to domesticated dots marching in order to form smooth-ish curves, legible fonts…fantastically expensive, surely! And yet there it is, our ultra-modern system: working properly. Serving our needs, with no expense spared. Oh, except it is spared, but never mind that right now, the illusion’s more important than the reality anyway. Isn’t it? Buckets of gigabytes at our disposal, I like to swim in them, dive into them, throw them up into the air and let them hit me on the head…! It’s sort of the same thing that happens when Regis Philbin addresses the empty air on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, saying:
“Computer, please take away two of the wrong answers.”
There’s a certain reassuring level of performance on display, there. A certain reassuring display of wealth, that’s big enough to free us from reality’s pesky details. “Say, computer, hand me the sports section, wouldja pal?” How polite Regis is, to his obviously non-existent friend the computer! His perfect servant/master, his all-seeing Jeeves or Spock: thus the modernistic dichotomy becomes the modernistic harmony, easy as that….at least, in our minds it becomes that, whether or not it happens to be true.
You may think I’m reaching a little. But believe me, you don’t know from reaching…
…And anyway, yeah. Because the fact remains: this is what I’m saying the LED scroller is at the airport, the bank, the ferry terminal.
But what the hell is it at the New Pub Concept?
Maybe I’ve dragged this out a little too much, because I’m sure you can clearly see: the LED scroller didn’t stay in the big industrial spaces. It didn’t just sit there kind of “humanizing them somewhat”. But as time passed, it got picked up and turned around, and also used for other purposes. Subversive purposes.
Consider the club, more precisely the discotheque: where before long you found the wilder people of the culture inhabiting, once again, a giant population intake valve. Only this time, it need not have been that, but it was chosen to be that — to look like that and to feel like that. Insouciant post-punk nihilism, narcissism, whatever you want to call it if there’s even any difference: obviously I am not speaking against it, but it’s the Berlin-style club, the “New York-style” club as they used to call it here in my backwards, soggy little home town, and it is an identifiable thing. Well, people will whoop it up anywhere, in any surroundings, but a party can also be a statement, and since the problems of modernity never can get fixed…
…Because like bone, our culture’s macroscopic resilience is based on the flex and snap of a million invisible microfractures…
…But only addressed, is it really surprising that it was really easy for a while there to find demimondean environments of consumption and abandon that embraced the identity of the Big Industrial Throughput Engine? Through which tides of people ebb and flow, ebb and flow, anonymously: the very picture of modernity’s big bugaboo. But, fuck it, say the young: we’ll just take this off your hands, you’re so damn scared of it. And just then, just there, look up to the DJ booth:
Hey, there it is!
Our old friend the LED scroller. Now Playing…Some Band…Now Playing…Some Band…
No, we haven’t reached the New Pub Concept yet, but we’re getting closer. And this is interesting too: the club is a station, the club is a vessel, the club is essntially nowhere and noplace, caught-between. Marvellous stuff, eh? There you are, stuck halfway between Denmark and Finland, when suddenly Eliot’s old air-raid siren goes off. So what better time to drop everything and dance, and drink, and screw? ‘Cause there’s nothing left to do, natch.
Ah, you have to love a rebellious spirit.
But note that as what was once the softener of alienation becomes the marker of it, suddenly it takes on a vast new life in the sea of associations. The post-apocalyptic world is where we survivors live, but it isn’t ours — it belongs to what was destroyed, it belongs to what destroyed it. All those great big public structures, the agents of alienation, we’re alienated from them again, alienated twice over: Grand Central Station goes back to the birds and the foxes, but not to us, even though we live there…’cause there’s nothing left to do…and the LED scroller outside the stock market chimes out our solitude and essential foreignness to ourselves, in abbreviations and fractions we can no longer decipher as anything but funereal runes, leftover readouts on the reactor long since gone supercritical. Science fiction, I tellya: it’s great, isn’t it? The toppled buildings and empty freeways. No wonder we keep going back to that shit. It is not predicting anything; because it is not predicting anything. The conversation is not new, and it isn’t particularly obscure either. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be about collapse. Or, you know…at least not exactly about collapse…
We have American Flagg, a series that often seemed almost to be based around the lettering, based around the reassuring/ironic/sinister texture of mood-managing surfaces, a neat and rather prescient screencap of what the idea of a post-apocalyptic world would eventually turn into. Well, sure! With the world decentred, all the announcements, all the lettering, all the textural softening is ludicrously, satirically untrustworthy; and the airports and train stations really are abandoned, as the Plex stops people-moving — wants no more to do with people-moving! — outside the corrupt and chaos-making media channels, which don’t push anyone from place to place, so much as they simply push them around. Because the lettering’s all that’s left. However, it’s a dystopia with a difference, because it’s so very up-to-date: and as a result this post-apocalytic landscape fails to alienate anything except what came before it, what destroyed it, what all its world supposedly belongs to. All that stuff instead getting disenfranchised itself, as the mood of the people waiting for the subway changes. Sours: as vitality fruits in the blasted plazas and the mixed messages, and once again the world’s copyright is returned to the survivors.
And we will get right into this pretty darn soon, as soon as Paul Verhoeven starts to make movies…“Would You Like To Know More?”…but we should also remember this stuff isn’t even original to Flagg, as fantastic as Flagg is at carrying it forward. The corrupt, dying society with absent and decentred authority sources, mysterious directives from space or who-knows-where that are no longer interested in control for anything but control’s own sake…a world of lies, unsustainable: there are so many places to find it. Certainly it was chief among the interests of SF writers of the Sixties, as a generational elaboration on, and reaction to, the warnings of 1984 and Brave New World…but now it gets more personal, as the post-apocalyptic landscape gets bigger and woolier, and the need for cosmic vengeance, scale-balancing, gets more and more urgent. The individual, always important for understanding the post-apocalyptic times in which we live, now becomes an instrument of Fate as well: agent of a new world, a neo-post-apocalypse if you will. And you could trace that stuff a LONG way back if you wanted to, as far as the Elder Edda and farther, but since in this essay we are focussing on the meaning of the present, we might as well concentrate on what happens to that old stuff in the present’s own Era. In movies, I guess I first became aware of it when I saw Logan’s Run, but soon there were movies that brought a lot more of it to the surface, made it all more immediate and visceral. The Warriors, and then Escape From New York: this is where the rebellious spirit grows teeth. Screw your vast impersonal industrial throughput spaces; we’re taking ’em back from you. It’s just what’s going on in the clubs, in the music, in the books and the comics.
Wait, I think I may have gotten a little off-topic, somewhere around here…
Oh, yeah. The lettering. The scrolling.
Hey…now that I think of it, just what is that damn LED scroller doing in the New Pub Concept place?
What I think it’s doing is this: trying to exploit its own associations. But unfortunately for it, the river of association only flows one way: and the only way to exploit associations is to try to create distance between them, that makes them weaker.
Let’s look at The Matrix for a minute: ostensibly just the same sort of business as all that fluff above, and indeed very much classically in line with the general discussion. Well turned-out, to say the least…and yet there’s something a little too pat about it. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Matrix too! “There Is No Spoon” and so forth…the guns and the violence, the technology and the environments, the temptation and the escape…but it’s no Diamond Dogs or Heroes, exactly. Is it? No, not exactly; the mood’s changed. To fight the machines, after all…that trick was looking a bit shopworn back when Steve Austin had his red tracksuit on. Not to mention, something the casual reader of even 1984 might be persuaded to find a little dishonest. Because, after all, who are the machines? What are the machines? Science fiction isn’t about the future, but the present, so the machines are always just figures, or when mishandled just excuses, because the technology and the people are inseperable: in fact, they stand for exactly what they are, and no more. The spectre of the machines “taking over” is practically Victorian, well out of date as a speculative nightmare by the time a concept of “neutral” technology is so dead it can’t even sponsor a believable spacesuit, fuck where are the scrolling letters at least, for heaven’s sake, you know?…and so it’s rather too pat, even if to the Wachowski’s credit the mysterious promise of the Oracle in the first movie is soon made good on, as it turns out there are all kinds of machines, just as there are all kinds of people. “Love is an emotion.” “No; love is a word.” There’s the only philosophy the Matrix movies contain, and it’s more than most movies ever contain, so you really do have to give them a little credit for that…however at the same time it’s hard to argue this philosophical point doesn’t get a little bit lost after a while, if only through being abandoned: as at least on the surface, the Matrix movies continue to separate out human agency from human machinery.
Which is not very “hi-touch” of them!
And so it’s a bit out of step with the times. One might even say: oddly so, given the great successes of SF movies that incorporate the interpenetrating, interfunctional nature of our own real-life relationship with technology into their decentred, surreally-fragmented futurescapes. We could start with Blade Runner and move up even to Minority Report: your Sixties fascinations, post-apocalyptic landscapes as psychological as they are technical — living simulacra, self-aware landscapes; dead and plastic people, touchable lies. And nowadays, of course, even that can’t help but look just the tiniest bit worn-out: because it isn’t American Flagg we’re dealing with anymore, it’s The Intimates. Even the unspeakably hideous modern captions in crap Marvel comics practically scream it out — an awareness of how to handle the reader, how to manage the reader as they stream them through these huge and empty rooms, although in the case of The Intimates it’s to direct your attention to something, and in the case of New Avengers it’s to direct it away. But in any case the typography’s more important than ever, because it’s more pop than ever: of all the things you might see in a comic book, pencils, inks, and colours — even paper quality — it’s the one that most clearly announces to you where and when you are, how you are interacting with your mass media and why. Well, McLuhan I ain’t, but even I can make it out at this kind of distance: every era gets its own flavour of meltdown, as the medium messages you its massage. And this time around it’s all about selling you the same thing twice, that you already own.
That you already lived through, and survived.
So in the New Pub Concept, things are all wrong because they’re just the same as they always were, only upside-down and distorted: the dancefloor’s on the walls, making the room’s floor and ceilings alarmingly small and close, but the “old-timey” typography comforts and reassures you, leaving room for the LED scroller…
…To get you excited, is the idea I think. But of course here again is the big why of it all: why is that its function, and not something else’s?
Finally we come around to it: it’s control, again. Management and massage. Well, naturally it is, eh? I mean, don’t we all know that large corporate entities never balk at recycling the recycled? “Oh, you took that thing we used to bullshit you with, and repurposed it to indicate our bullshitty nature…wow, thanks for giving us a new way to sell you your own bullshit!” Not that I’m saying we’re stupid, after all it isn’t our fault that modernity’s essence is economic…!
Hey, I think the Enlightenment went thataway, Sheriff…!
But in the era of the present, this kind of winking-at-you-winking-at-me thing gets less useful, and more Steve Austin, all the time. “Hey,” says the LED-scroller. “Hey buddy. Hey, buddy.”
“Hey, we’re really going somewhere now, eh? I guess we made it. Together.”
Yeah, well…I guess we kind of did…
…Whoever you are.
Thus it is revealed, that those who do not learn the lessons of pop iconography, will be forced to repeat the class.
...This way out, Bloggers…Do Come Again…