Wednesday, June 20, 2012

How Alternative Can our Alternative Future Be?

There's an interesting piece in this year's Nebula Awards Showcase, a lively short story about an alternative future premised on Aztec culture, "The Jaguar House, in Shadow," by Aliette de Bodard.  One of the biggest challenges to those of us trying to imagine and evoke alternative futures is precisely what animates de Bodard's story: can we come up with futures that aren't already colonized by Western modernity?  As she writes (185):

Part of the challenge (and what had frustrated me with the earlier attempt) is making sure that "modern" doesn't end up equating "twentieth-century Western culture"; and equally making sure that the Aztec culture doesn't turn out to be an ossified version of what the conquistadors saw.

De Bodard struggles with this premise, ultimately sketching a future Tenochtitlan that is at turns archaeological speculation and Aztec steampunk.  Maglev stations, nanotechnology, religion, traditional drugs, Aztec ball courts.  It all pushes the story forward, and beyond: the ending makes me suspect that there's a novel in the works.

But is this really an alternative future?  Or is this just Western sf playing in the ruins of Tenochtitlan?  De Bodard's protagonist, Oballi, breaks into the house of her own Jaguar order in order to rescue her friend, a feat enabled by various physically extending drugs and technologies, including nanotechnologically enhanced finger-nails.  "She extended, in one fluid, thoughtless gesture: her nails were diamond-sharp,  courtesy of Atcoatl's nanos, and it was easy to find purchases on the carving" (192).  It's that juxtaposition of Aztec carvings and nanotechnology that gesture to the limits of this "alternative" future.  

Contrast this to Andrew Pickering's The Cybernetic Brain (2010), a decidedly non-fictional evocation of an "alternative future" that is premised on what Pickering calls (after the work of Bruno Latour) "nonmodern" ontologies.  
What I want to suggest is that the ontology of cybernetics is a strange and unfamiliar one, very different from that of the modern sciences. I also want to suggest that ontology makes different—that the strangeness of specific cybernetics projects hangs together with the strangeness of its ontology. (17)
In the performative ontologies evoked in cybernetics, the world appears less as the transparent workings of a Cartesian universe than as a series of black boxes that we interact with in a performative way--with frequently surprising results.  Examples of cybernetics as an alternative epistemology for knowing this black-box ontology abound, but one of my favorites (and, I think, also Pickering's) is Gordon Pask's 1950's work on Musicolour.
Materially, the music was converted into an electrical signal by a microphone, and within Musicolour the signal passed through a set of filters, sensitive to different frequencies, the beat of the music, and so on, and the output of the filters controlled different lights.  You could imagine that the highest-frequency filter energized a bank of red lights, the next-highest the blues, and so on.  Very simple, except for the fact that the internal parameters of Musicolour's circuitry were not constant.  In analogy to biological neurons, banks of lights would only be activated if the output from the relevant filter exceeded a certain threshold value, and these thresholds varied in time as charges built up on capacitors according to the development of the performance and the prior behavior of the machine. (316)
Rather than treat music, sound, cognition, perception as divisible parts rendered knowable by science as discrete data, Pask developed a machine that encouraged the adaptive coupling of diverse systems to each other, a kind of performative epistemology that was, as Pickering points out over and over, both a "theater" and an example of what might be called a non-modern ontology: the world construed not as divisible, objectified parts, but as complex systems loosely coupled to each through feedback, where the goal is not to dominate and exploit but to interact, cope--to negotiate a truth rather than command one.   The point, of course, is that this is ultimately an alternative modernity (or, as Pickering writes, a "nonmodern" epistemology). 

It's all interesting, and Pickering hits on what excites me most about cybernetics: it's capacity to interrogate the assumptions that have guided technological development up to now, and possibility for "lines of flight" within the hegemonic discourse of objectivist science and the domination of nature.  Indeed, Pickering reflects on cybernetics in the wake of Deleuzean "nomad science," and finds the work Beer, Pask, Bateson and others to anticipate much of the Deleuzean turn. Of course, Pickering uses that problematic "nonmodern"--I am not nearly so sanguine that we can escape the modern by emphasizing a performative ontology, since the message here is that it was implicit in the cybernetic modern all along.

And this gets me back to de Bodard's story.  Can we evoke a truly non-Western future?  Is there a "nonmodern" modernity?  Can we simultaneously imagine a future and escape from that future's overdetermination by, perhaps, the most central characteristic of modernity itself: "futures thinking"? We can see de Bodard's writing as part of the answer--imagining non-Western futures--although I wish she had spent some time looking at actual Aztec futures, as in the Mexican environmental groups and sustainability techniques that have been developed off of insights into Aztec irrigation and farming. Or even at the interesting (and tumultuous) world of Mexican sf (see Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz's Biografias del Futuro: La ciencia ficcion mexicana y sus autores (2000)).

The other part, though, must be examining Western futures themselves as multiple, or, more precisely, as a virtual field of difference through the potentialities Pickering sketches.  Perhaps we can approach that alternative future through multiple estrangements.  First, undermining our own assumptions about the future by excavating "roads not taken"--cybernetics, Bergonism, etc., while struggling to understand non-Western epistemologies.  Second, the fuzzy coupling of alternative futures, non-Western futures, sublimated utopia: in other words, the performative ontology Pickering lionizes performed on a grander temporal and spatial scale.  Ultimately, the goal is less prediction and control than adapting to these shifting, swirling, Musicolour constellations.

There's a story about his time working in a VA hospital that Gregory Bateson told in a 1971 Naropa Institute lecture that I explore in a 2010 article (Collins 2010: 60):
At the request of the ward superintendent, he invited a new patient to his office and, in way of initialing conversation (and building rapport) offered him a cigarette. The patient took a few puffs and then, looking Bateson straight in the eyes, dropped it on the carpet. The next day, he again met with Bateson, took a cigarette, lit it, and dropped it on the carpet. Only this time, he decided to take a walk. Bateson followed him for 100 yards or so, and then couldn't take it any longer. "Look, man, I've got to know what that cigarette is doing!" They turned back to retrieve it. On the third day, the same thing, only this time, when the resident got up to take a walk, Bateson palmed the cigarette and followed behind. A few yards out the door, Bateson said, "Ed, I think this is your cigarette, isn't it?" Ed laughed, and Bateson felt that he had been admitted in (if only fleetingly) into the resident's world.
What is the point here to Bateson's enigmatic parable?  First, that understanding here is not premised on control.  It's not about forcing the patient into the Bateson's cognitive schema.  Instead, it's about creating cybernetic couplings that interact along "lines of flight" that gesture to something else entirely.  Could this be a metaphor for strange (and estranging) futures?


Collins, Samuel Gerald (2010).  "'An Electronic Buzzer is Laughing'."  Cybernetics & Human Knowing 17(3): 45-64.

Pickering, Andrew (2010).  The Cybernetic Brain.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.