The Last Days of Nature

In reaction to last week’s The New Yorker article on synthetic biology (Specter, Michael, “A Life Of Its Own,” 28 September 2009, pp. 56-65):

The objective of synthetic biology is the final subsumption of the logic of nature into the logic of capitalism. Capitalism being the logic of human desire, the objective of synthetic biology is — as with the whole of the technological endeavor — the elimination of all intercession between desire and its fulfillment. It is the attempt to return to the purity of the hallucination of the breast, to do away with despised reality testing, the creation of a world of pure subjectivity.

For a cyberpunk rereading of Hegel: Freud as the last of the Young Hegelians.

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The Architecture of Nightmares

Circa 1999, Lebbeus Woods, detail of Terrain 1-2

In “Imagination Unmoored” (8 August 2008) I suggested that in addition to our dreams we might end up living in our nightmares. It struck me as a strange thought when I wrote it, though I didn’t even have to think any particular scenario — the eccentric, the accidental, the illicit — all the way through for its plausibility to be apparent. Our culture already abounds in it. It is in this regard that the works of H. P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick have been inducted into the Library of America and that players sign up for Hord in World of Warcraft. Alternative iconography seeks stark contrasts with the mundane, with Goth tending toward horror and punk the post-apocalyptic. Pornography has always tarried with the Sadistic and the surreal.

Any art of the found will inevitably end up scavenging our calamities as well as our aspirations. Enter Lebbeus Woods whose architectural design work will be included in Dreamland: Architectural Experiments since the 1970s, an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (Ouroussoff, Nichlai, “An Architect Unshackled by Limits of the Real World,” 24 August 2008):

In the early 1990s he published a stunning series of renderings that explored the intersection of architecture and violence. The first of these, the Berlin Free-Zone project, designed soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was conceived as an illustration of how periods of social upheaval are also opportunities for creative freedom.

Aggressive machinelike structures — their steel exteriors resembling military debris — are implanted in the abandoned ruins of buildings that flank the wall’s former death zone. Cramped and oddly shaped, the interiors were designed to be difficult to inhabit — a strategy for screening out the typical bourgeois. (“You can’t bring your old habits here,” he warned. “If you want to participate, you will have to reinvent yourself.”)

This vision reached its extreme in a series of renderings he created in 1993 in response to the war in Bosnia. Inspired by sci-fi comics and full of writhing cables, crumbling buildings and flying shards of steel, these drawings seem to mock the old Modernist faith in a utopian future. Their dark, moody atmosphere suggests a world in a constant struggle for survival.

In 1999 he began working on a series of designs whose fragmented planes were intended to reflect the seismic shifts that occur during earthquakes. (“The idea is that it’s not nature that creates catastrophes,” he said. “It’s man. The renderings were intended to reflect a new way of thinking about normal geological occurrences.”)

“I’m not interested in living in a fantasy world,” Mr. Woods told me. “All my work is still meant to evoke real architectural spaces. But what interests me is what the world would be like if we were free of conventional limits. Maybe I can show what could happen if we lived by a different set of rules.”

The article actually laments that the young generation in architecture has been made facile by overuse of computers. Au contraire! That is exactly how we are to experience the architecture of the impractical, built under fanciful physics.

Imagination Unmoored

I like it when art becomes it’s own medium of response to itself, rather than leaving it to prose. I have always like Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa” and Don McLean’s “Vincent” (YouTube | Wikipedia). But Robbie Dingo’s recreation of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night in Second Life, making a video of the process of creation, then setting it to Don McLean’s song does it all one better (Au, Wagner James, “Remake the Stars,” New World Notes, 18 July 2007).

Schema of the arts and sciences aside, I like this for what is suggests for the future of virtual worlds. Hitherto our imaginations have been stunted by continuous exposure to the narrow Newtonian world of the macroscopic everyday. Witness, for example, what happens when people try to imagine fantastical animals. All that we can come up with is combinations of existing animals: griffins, mermaids, centaurs, dragons, Cerberus, et cetera.

Once we start to live in a regular way in virtual worlds of our own creation, a dynamic will form where each feat of imagining will establish a new norm and a new developmental environment from which each subsequent foray of imagining and generation of imagineer will be capable of going a little further beyond the forms of this world. As we increasingly live in worlds not constrained by the same limits as the material world, our imaginations will become completely unmoored from the forms provided to us by macroscopic nature. The true, autonomous nature of the imagination — throughout all of history shackled by the relentless, overwhelming conditioning of the narrow forms presented to us by dull matter — will be liberated.

And owing to neuroplasticity, inherited or induced, maturing and living in radically different worlds will allow us to develop new modes of being and new understandings. In the future we will live in our dreams and our nightmares. Science has laid the groundwork for our art to become the more fundamental reality. The direction of humanity is a retreat from the material world into a world composed entirely of mind.

Mr. Au mentions Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (IMDB | Wikipedia). I think maybe it’s time to dig out and rewatch an old favorite, Until the End of the World (IMDB | Wikipedia).

Politically, for all of human history the Earth has provided the unified point of reference for all humanity. With a proliferation of possible environments, the hitherto more or less unified character of the human world will gradually degenerate. The dissolution of our political order, multiculturalism, neo-primitivism, the turning away from master narratives and the dawning of the postmodern era are natural consequences of technology.

As Vernor Vinge said of the coming of the singularity, “I can see us becoming weird — before my very eyes” (“My Apocalyptic Vision is Very Narrow,” 13 June 2008).