Wednesday, January 18, 2017
Sunday, March 20, 2016
2. Civilisation and its Discontents.
Something in all men profoundly rejoices at seeing a car burn.
When considering this possibility, we come up against a contention that is so astonishing that we will dwell on it for awhile. It is contended that much of the blame for our misery lies with what we call our civilisation, and that we should be far happier if we were to abandon it and revert to primitive conditions.
Sigmund Freud, Civilisation and its Discontents.
In the previous part of this essay, we looked at how influential modernist architects like Le Corbusier believed that a radical new architecture and urban design could produce a stable, happy community of people whose behaviour ultimately emulates the harmonious mathematical order of the buildings in which they live. In Shivers and High-Rise, however, we find the opposite happening. The residents of Starliner apartments (in Cronenberg's film) and Anthony Royal's high-rise (in Ballard novel) do not replicate the mathematical balance of their environments; rather they surrender to the inherent disorder and chaos of their deepest instincts and most primal impulses. There is a double irony at work here: we observe not only anarchy breaking out in a built environment of idealized mathematical simplicity, but also a kind of atavistic reversion taking place in an architecture which was designed to embody the modern, and act as the incubator of the individual and community of the utopian future. Here is the ultimate riposte to the modernist utopia: instead of going boldly into the idealized tomorrow, the residents of the high-rise are regressing back, to the infantile stages of human identity and civilisation. With a vengeance.
We also argued in the previous section that modernity signalled a radical new juncture in how we perceive time. Previous epochs were often enthralled by the myth of the Golden Age – the belief that the past was infinitely better – nobler, more elevated in manner and wisdom – than the present. The present, in this view, was a failing away or degeneration from a prior, more exalted civilisation, destined either to be lost forever or to come back again according to some grand historical cycle. The return of the past is thus something to be welcomed. In the modern era, all this was reversed. Once we conceive of the present as the pinnacle of civilisation, and the future as the potential Golden Age, the return of the past becomes a danger, a creeping menace. We begin to conceive of modern civilisation as a grand albeit precarious achievement, constantly imperilled by the threat of some kind of reversion back to its well-springs in the primitive and barbaric. This attitude developed from a variety of sources: not only the modernist utopianism which we discussed in the previous chapter, but also from a climate of fierce chauvinism and belief in the superiority of western civilisation which flourished in the Victorian period.
The Victorian period in particular was characterised by a widespread anxiety regarding the stability and permanence of civilisation and the hard-won fruits of progress – a fear of the ‘resurgent atavism’ in cultural terms. In biology, an atavism is a throwback, an ancestral trait or characteristic which returns in individual cases after it has been lost for several generations by the species. It is the anomalous return of some characteristic of a prior stage of evolution and form of existence. The concept of the atavism has enjoyed a rich life in the cultural sphere as a metaphor for the sudden resurgence of primitive forms of thought and behaviour in the context of modern civilisation. In its inception, this concept was often aligned with ideologies of social Darwinism and racism; in time though, it has also come to express ambiguous attitudes towards the value and validity of rationalistic modern civilisation. In Shivers and High-Rise, we find a breakout of resurgent primitivism in the modern apartment complex: in Shivers, a return to a greedy, unbounded infantile sexuality, and in High-Rise to both the prior infantile forms of the individual and of human society in general. To contextualise both works, we will look at the theories of Sigmund Freud, a considerable influence on both artists, and in particular his 1929 essay Civilisation and its Discontents.
Das Unbehagen in Der Kultur (“The Uneasiness in Civilisation”) was written in the aftermath of World War I, which had been to many a profound blow to the notion of human progress and rational civilisation. What is interesting about the particular unease with civilisation which Freud posits in this essay is that it was not – as in the case of traditional fears of the resurgent atavism – something extrinsic to civilisation. It was not something which civilisation had progressed beyond, something external and alien which might still be observed in the customs of the “less developed” cultures. Rather, Freud argued that a conflict between the primitive and the civilised might be an intrinsic part of the very relationship between the individual and civilisation itself. For Freud, civilisation offered the individual something like a Faustian bargain in reverse. The traditional Faustian bargain offers its recipient the capacity to indulge themselves to the maximal degree – to have no limits placed on their capacity for self-indulgence and self-expression.
Civilisation, on the other hand, offers the following bargain. You will enjoy ever greater levels of security, comfort, hygiene and health. The bounty of intellectual and aesthetic “high” culture – art, philosophy, the sciences – will be yours to enjoy. Your home will be warm and the provision of your food require no foraging, hunting, or sowing. For the greater part of your life, you will be shielded from physical privation, violence and mortal threats. These are the fruits of civilisation. However, in order to maintain them, we have to give something in return: a great measure of our freedom and individuality must be sacrificed. Most crucially for Freud, our instinctual being – our naturally unbounded desires for the gratification of our sexuality and our individual will – must be repressed:
“Thirdly – and this seems the most important point – it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilisation is built up on renunciation, how much it presupposes the non-satisfaction of powerful drives – ‘cultural frustration’ dominates the large sphere of inter-personal relations; as we already know, it is the cause of the hostility that all civilisations have to contend with.”
To understand Freud’s view of this tension between the individual and his society, we need to briefly sketch out his well-known structural model of the psyche. Freud saw the outward social individual as the mediation between two conflicting forces: the Id and the superego. In this instance, the Id is the atavism: it is the throwback to our infantile stage as an individual, and pre-civilized state as a species. A confluence of our instinctual desires and urges, the Id desires only instant pleasure and gratification, and recognises no law, no limit, no reason or compromise:
“It is the dark, inaccessible part of your personality, what little we know of it we have learned from our study of Dreamwork and of course the construction of neurotic symptoms, and most of that is of a negative character and can be described only as a contrast to the ego. We approach the id with analogies: we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations…It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principal.”
The id is held in check by the superego which is the voice of conscience, the authority of the father, the police force of the individual psyche. Out of some kind of compromise between the clamour of our instinctual desires, and the authoritarian stop-brake of our superego, our public, social persona, or ego, emerges. However, as Freud saw it, this compromise, particularly under the demands of advanced civilisation, is rarely satisfactory for the individual. Inside every humble, self-effacing bourgeois lies a violent, priapic barbarian waiting to claw its way out. Inside each of us, like a buried archaeological stratum of private and evolutionary history, resides an infant and a primitive, a creature of unfettered appetite that swells and seethes with every compromise and accommodation to the adult, civilized world.
In this regard, we can see that there is a neat parallelism between Freud's conception of the individual psyche and civilisation as whole. In terms of mass civilisation, the superego corresponds to the coercive forces by which a society maintains its ideological equilibrium and order – not only the physical force represented by military and police, but also the more crucial invisible forms of psychological coercion and conformism which lead individuals to police their own behaviour. The ego corresponds to the outward appearance of society as a smoothly functioning, cohesive whole whose various parts are content with their societal roles and the overall moral structure of their society. Under the surface, however, there remains the society's id – the seething cauldron of individual discontent, of repressed but unvanquished instinctual drives, which constantly threatens the stability of the society from within.
The marvelous lithographic illustrations for Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur (Artforms in Nature) - via Wikipedia.
Freud's ideas in this regard were influenced by the recapitulation theory of the German biologist and polymath Ernst Haeckel. This theory, roughly stated, holds that the embryonic development of the individual contains within it and repeats in its individual growth the various evolutionary developmental stages of the species – ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, ontogeny referring the development of the individual, and phylogeny the collective evolution of the species. In Civilisation and its Discontents, Freud argues for a similar conception of the psyche, using the metaphor of an imaginary Rome whose entire history remains permanently present in its current form:
“Now let us make the fantastic assumption that Rome is not a place where people live, but a psychical entity with a similarly long, rich past, in which nothing that ever took shape has passed away, and in which all previous phases of development exist alongside the most recent.”
Though discredited as biology, the recapitulation theory has as a certain elegant, resonant quality: the individual organisation becomes a fractal of the species as a whole, and a living museum of its own vast evolutionary history. The idea clearly fascinated Ballard; in The Drowned World he utilized as a “literary device” the notion of the spinal column as a vessel containing “the details of the entire evolutionary development of the human race”:
“I tell how human beings likewise regress into the past. In a certain sense, they climb down their own spinal column. They traverse down the thoracic vertebrae, from the point at which they are air-breathing mammals, to the lumbar region, to the point at which they are they are amphibious reptiles. Finally they reach the absolute past, which on one hand represents the birth of life itself in the hot womb of the primeval jungle, and which in another sense represents their own origins and birthplace in the mother's womb.”
Whether strictly accurate or no, Freud's conjoined notion of the psyche and society as a placid veneer or facade, perpetually threatened by atavistic impulses and instincts that remain perfectly preserved below the surface, was perhaps the most enduring and influential of his ideas throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. It is certainly this central idea informs the narratives of both Shivers and High Rise. Partially funded by the Canadian Film Board and apparently shot in just 15 days, Shivers remains the most extreme, forceful – and “Cronenbergian” - of all Cronenberg flicks. Its first five minutes, in fact, are so gruellingly warped and unsettling that it was almost as though the auteur was trying to instantly jettison any viewers who weren't in it for keeps. The rest of the film is a sustained assault on every orifice the film's bodies and the viewer's mind has to offer – it isn't every film that features a faecal-phallic parasite as its antagonist – perhaps for the best.
Cronenberg's early films have a unique atmosphere which derive partially from the imperfections and artefacts of their production milieu. Shot cheaply with actors of variable ability, and shot through with a chilly, insular Canadian quality, they have a kind of sinister sterility which is increased rather than off-set by soundtracks of gentle, lullaby-like library music. They feel like mutant public information films. It is interesting that Cronenberg's early cinema often focuses on medical scientists whose well-intentioned experiments produce horrifying consequences. In the 50s and 60s, the well-intentioned monster D. Ewen Cameron carried out a series of appalling experiments in psychological conditioning (under the auspices of the CIA's MK-ULTRA programme) in Montreal's Allen Memorial Institute. Some years before, an estimated 20,000 orphaned children (the Duplessis Orphans) had been falsely certified as mentally ill as part of a scheme in Quebec and confined to psychiatric units. Whether a conscious influence or otherwise, these events make Canada an apt location for the emergence of a chilly, medical variety of horror.
The first of Cronenberg's messianic dabblers is Dr Emil Hobbes in Shivers. Like Freud, Hobbes believes that civilisation creates a fundamental cleavage between humans and their natural and instinctual being; he describes man as “an animal who thinks too much” and “an over-rational animal that's lost touch with its body and its instincts.” However, whereas Freud believed that the repression of the instinctual drives was a worthwhile and necessary sacrifice to make in order to maintain civilisation, Hobbes is a libidinal anarchist who believes that western civilisation is itself a mass neurosis that must be cured at all costs. To this end, he develops an artificial parasite which is a combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease. This parasite, he hopes, will unleash the libidinal id on a mass scale, and transform the world into “one beautiful mindless orgy.” In this sense, Hobbes follows in a strain of sexual anarchism which developed out of conventional Freudian theory. The first of these outlaws was the equal parts brilliant and demented Wilhelm Reich, whose championing of orgiastic potency as a cure for neurosis lead to him being labelled the “prophet of the better orgasm” and the “founder of a genital utopia.”
Since Cronenberg is making a horror film, Hobbes' plan to initiate a genital utopia goes Horribly Wrong – as plans which involve the creation of artificial venereal parasites are wont to. On the surface, it might appear that Cronenberg's film expresses an essentially conservative viewpoint: unleash the id, and you open a Pandora's Box of uncontrollable violence and chaos. This was how Robin Wood, a trenchant early critic of Cronenberg, interpreted the film when he saw it at the Edinburgh film festival: “It's derivation is from Invasion of the Body Snatchers via Night of the Living Dead, but the source of its intensity is quite distinct: all the horror is based on extreme sexual disgust.” To take such a view, however, is to misread the very ambiguous nature of Cronenberg's sexual apocalypse in Shivers. The director has often said that he identifies more with the characters after they have been infected – which is to say that a world of sexual anarchy, violence and wanton destruction is somehow preferable to the dull, routinised existence of the middle-class professional.
Although our modern connotative sense of the word apocalypse is a negative image of total destruction, the literal meaning of the word is a disclosure, an unveiling; a revelation of the true nature of the world. “Something in all men,” Jean Baudrillard wrote, “profoundly rejoices at seeing a car burn.” Cronenberg is by intellectual temperament very much a modernist, but he rejoices in seeing the orderly and antiseptic world of the urban bourgeois thorn asunder. For him, the parasite simply unveils the true animal nature of the high-rise dwellers; like the car crash in Ballard's fictions, it reconnects them to their bodies, to the rich, precarious corporeal existence from which they have become disengaged. In Crash and Shivers, disgust in an intrinsic part of the body and sexuality. This idea is expressed in Shivers by Nurse Forsythe (played by ethereal exploitation movie queen Lynn Lowry):
Roger, I had a very disturbing dream last night. In this dream I found myself making love to a strange man. Only I'm having trouble you see, because he's old... and dying... and he smells bad, and I find him repulsive. But then he tells me that everything is erotic, that everything is sexual. You know what I mean? He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh. That disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other. That even dying is an act of eroticism. That talking is sexual. That breathing is sexual. That even to physically exist is sexual. And I believe him, and we make love beautifully.
Monday, February 29, 2016
1. Architecture or Revolution?
In the new beginning that dates from Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture, the machine occupied a central place: its austerity, its economy, its geometric cleanness was claimed almost the sole virtue of the new architecture. Thus the kitchen became a laboratory, and the bathroom took on the characteristics of a surgical operating room; while the other parts of the house, for a decade or so, achieved excellence almost to the degree that they, too, were white, cleanable, empty of human content.
Lewis Mumford, The Case Against “Modern Architecture”, 1962.
The spectacular view always made Laing aware of his ambivalent feelings for this concrete landscape. Part of its appeal lay all too clearly in the fact that this was an environment built, not for man, but for man’s absence.
J.G. Ballard, High-Rise, 1975.
The high-rise apartment or office tower is a perennial icon and symbol of the modern world. It embodies the primary characteristics of high modernist architecture: the rejection of ornamentation in favour of cool, minimalist function, and organic complexity in favour of an austere rectilinear geometry; the omnipresence of glass facades and curtain walling, which prompted Lewis Mumford to pithily observe that glass was the only material modern architects were unable to see through. In its clean, uniform character, it evokes the age of the machine and of mass production; in its scale and elevation, the dream of conquering gravity which presided over the twentieth century in a myriad forms. Most of all, the high rise represents the dream of a fully rational, mathematically simple and predictable landscape in which the wilder vagaries of the natural world, and human nature, have been ousted.
A vertical village in which nobody knows anybody else, the high-rise embodies many of the contradictions of urban life: the close physical proximity and emotional distance of its inhabitants, the merging of their public and private space in its tiers of balconies, corridors and stairwells, allows the high-rise to serve as a model for the city's peculiar conjunction of populousness and alienation. As a symbol of modernity and urbanism, the high-rise carries a variety of different meanings and resonances, and provokes antithetical responses of considerable emotional intensity. An ambiguous entity, it embodies both the utopian and dystopian characteristics of modern life. On the one hand, the high-rise tower block makes us think of the disastrous structures that urban councils built to house (and segregate) the urban poor in the 60s and 70s, with all the morass of crime, deprivation, and hopelessness that resulted. On the other, we think of the luxury high-rise blocks favoured by middle and upper middle-class dwellers as the embodiment of a certain kind of sleek urban elegance - a living space somewhere between home and hotel, safely cloistered in the upper air from the clamour of the streets below.
Fuck Yeah Brutalism
Fuck Yeah Brutalism
Fuck Yeah Brutalism
Fuck Yeah Brutalism.
Fuck Yeah Brutalism
Fuck Yeah Brutalism
Fuck Yeah Brutalism
Fuck Yeah Brutalism.
Modernist architecture has always been hugely divisive. For some, it has embodied all the failings, aesthetic, intellectual, or spiritual, of modernity itself. A common idea (or ideology) underlying modernity was that it represented a point of total historical novelty in which a new awareness or mode of consciousness was born, wholly unconnected to and unencumbered by the past. This is the essence of modernity conceived as a utopian project: a Manichean conflict between the past, envisioned in a wholly negative light, and the salvation offered by the novelty of the present moment, which contains in utero a future of continual improvement and progress. Modernist architecture was keenly informed by this sense of a radical break with the past, and as such its towers and monuments arose with a brash disregard for their predecessors in time and surroundings in space, serving for some as the harbingers of a new aesthetic order, and others as a crude effacement of the historical continuity of the urban landscape, the city in time which is a living record of its own history.
In the late 1960s and 70s, modernist architecture and urban planning were undergoing a particularly sustained backlash. This perhaps provides a partial explanation for the striking coincidence of two works of art which appeared in 1975: JG Ballard's novel High-Rise and David Cronenberg's feature debut Shivers (They Came from Within.) High-Rise and Shivers are so similar in theme and basic outline that I'd always assumed one must have influenced the other, until I realized that they came out in the same year.
Both are apocalypses of the middle-class in which the denizens of luxury modernist high rise towers cumulatively descend (or perhaps ascend) into total anarchy and violence. In Ballard's version, a series of small, petty acrimonies gradually escalate into sectarian violence, tribalism, and eventually a total reversion to nomadic primitivism. In Cronenberg's more explicitly psychosexual vision of the high-rise apocalypse, our location is Starliner Towers, a self-contained high-modernist Montreal community where “day to day living becomes a luxury cruise.” Starliner's placid middle-class seclusion is shattered by the spread of an invasive parasite, however, which turns its residents into polymorphously perverse zombies.
Ballard's novel concerns class-warfare and the effective collapse of society, while Cronenberg's movie presents the sexual revolution in fast-forward as a claustrophobic George Romero freak-out. Both works hinge on the same basic set of ironic contrasts: between the sterility of the environment and the eventual anarchy of its inhabitants, between the geometry of modern urban architecture and the disorder which both artists present as seething under the surface of its human residents, or, more succinctly, between the utopian aspirations of modernist urban planning, and the apocalypses which Ballard and Cronenberg stage, both with a distinct gusto, within the confines of its iconic signifier, the high-rise. In this essay, I’m going to look at Shivers and High Rise as critiques of Modernist utopianism which both express Freudian ideas regarding the fragility of civilisation in the form of ambiguous, darkly comic middle-class apocalypses.
In a broad historical sense, the word modern denotes the whole panoply of changes which engulfed society, culture and human identity between the 17th and 20th centuries: the rapid development of the physical sciences, industrialisation, mechanisation, increasing urbanisation, the questioning of traditional values and sources of authority, the emergence of state bureaucracies, and so on. In his study of modernity All That is Solid Melts into Air, Marshall Berman quotes (and derives his title from) Karl Marx's poetic evocation of the profound sense of upheaval engendered by modernity:
“All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face....the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.”
In a climate of such accelerated change and radical uncertainty, new faiths and foundations were required to replace the old, and a faith in the idea of modernity itself would become increasingly powerful by the twentieth century. This was the belief that all human problems were best served, and could indeed potentially be solved, by the application of scientific, rationalistic, and technocratic means. The world was no longer a conflict between good and evil so much as one between the Utopian promise of the modern present and the dank, superstitious follies of the past.
Lewis Mumford argued that a belief in mechanical progress was the central underlying assumption of modern architecture: “Concealed within this notion was the assumption that human improvement would come about more rapidly, indeed almost automatically, through devoting all our energies to the expansion of scientific knowledge and to technological inventions; that traditional knowledge and experience, traditional forms and values, acted as a brake upon such expansion and invention, and that since the order embodied by the machine was the highest type of order, no brakes of any kind were desirable.” In a similar vein, James C. Scott, writing in Seeing Like a State, describes the high-modernist faith as “a strong (one might even say muscle-bound) version of the beliefs in scientific and technical progress that were associated with industrialisation in Western Europe and in North America from roughly 1830 until World War I. At its centre was a supreme self-confidence about continued linear progress, the development of scientific and technical knowledge, the expansion of production, the rational design of social order, the growing satisfaction of human needs, and not least, an increasing control over nature (including human nature) commensurate with scientific understanding of natural laws.”
Among the most extreme of the modernist utopians were the Italian Futurists, an avant-garde movement of the early twentieth century whose work expressed an unqualified rejection of the past, and an altogether rhapsodic mania for the powers unleashed by the industrial age: “Comrades, we tell you now that that the triumphant progress of science makes changes in humanity inevitable, changes that are hacking an abyss between those docile slaves of tradition and us free moderns who are confident in the radiant splendour of our future.” (Manifesto of the Futurist Painters, 1910, F.T. Marinetti.) Everybody was excited to some degree or another by the sweeping march of the modern world; the Futurists were stone drunk on it. Their intoxication focussed on images and themes which would become uniquely expressive of the 20th century, and the youth culture which began to flourish after the wars: the automobile, the airplane, the industrial city, youth, speed and violence. (These same signifiers become hugely prominent in J.G. Ballard’s fiction, albeit viewed from a far more ambiguous perspective.)
The first great modernist Utopian in the architectural sphere was Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Grist, an extraordinary man of Swiss-French extraction whom the world came to know by the pseudonym le Corbusier. An indefatigable architect, painter, author, urban planner and visionary, the range of le Corbusier’s talents was amply matched by the hubristic scale of his ambitions. Like the Futurists, le Corbusier had been intoxicated by the sense of immense power embodied in the technological world. In L’Urbanisme (The City of Tomorrow, 1924), le Corbusier describes a kind of “conversion” experience to the faith of modernism. The author is taking an evening stroll on the Champs Elysées, and begins his narrative in a mood of stereotypical alienation from the sound and fury of the modern city. Intimidated by the speeding cars, he broods over the loss of the era of the pedestrian, a quieter, idealized world which moved to a statelier tempo.
An abrupt and total change of heart overtakes him, however; he begins to conceive of the modern world as a tidal wave of energy which the individual can participate in, experiencing almost a theophany of technological animism:
“On the 1st of October, 1924, I was assisting in the titanic rebirth of a new phenomenon….traffic. Cars, cars, fast, fast! One is seized, filled with enthusiasm, with joy…the joy of power. The simple and naïve pleasure of being in the midst of power, of strength. One participates in it. One takes part in this society that is just dawning. One has confidence in this new society: it will find a magnificent expression of its power. One believes in it (cited in All That is Solid Melts into Air). ”
Le Corbusier sought to create the architecture of this bold new society, and his project is suffused with all the galvanizing energy, as well as the unsettling autocratic undertones, of the above passage. He becomes the theorist, prophet and practitioner of a new Machine Age design aesthetic, with his hugely influential 1923 manifesto Towards a New Architecture providing the iconic slogan “A House is a Machine for Living In.” His dreams are grandiose in scale, requiring the construction of whole cities from scratch. The Ville Contemoraine, an unrealized project from 1920, encapsulates many of Le Corbusier’s ideas about urbanism, and is a quintessential example of the Utopian mega-city of the future which would become the dystopian backdrop of science fiction like Judge Dredd and Blade Runner. Designed to house three million inhabitants, the focal-point of the Ville was its 24 imposing, glass curtain-walled cruciform apartment/office blocks, “towers in a park” which formed the commercial district, separated by rectangular green-belts from the residential and industrial areas. The plan shows Le Corbusier’s extreme commitment to functionalism in urban design: a network of buses, trains, high-ways, and even roof-top airports makes the intervening spaces almost redundant. The city is divided very strictly into residential and work spaces, with the traditional city’s tendency to produce bricolages of mixed function and purpose eliminated by wide open spaces, traversed by the modern miracle of rapid transportation.
In 1925, Le Corbusier proposed demolishing two square miles of the north bank of the Seine in order to facilitate a smaller version of the ideas embodied in the Ville Contemoraine. His description of the proposed development (Plan Voisin) is typically lyrical and rhapsodic, transforming the office towers into weightless, almost spiritual entities:
“I shall ask my readers to imagine they are walking in this new city, and have begun to acclimatize themselves to its untraditional advantages. You are under the shade of trees, vast lawns spread all round you. The air is clear and pure; there is hardly any noise. What, you cannot see where the buildings are ? Look through the charmingly diapered arabesques of branches out into the sky towards those widely-spaced crystal towers which soar higher than any pinnacle on earth. These translucent prisms that seem to float in the air without anchorage to the ground - flashing in summer sunshine, softly gleaming under grey winter skies, magically glittering at nightfall - are huge blocks of offices.”
Most of Le Corbusier's grander schemes remained unrealized (the closest he got to working on such a vast scale were his contributions to the planned city of Chandigrarh in the north of India.) On more modest terms, however, we find his ideas realized in the Unité d'habitation residential block in Marseille which is often called the Cité radieuse (Radiant City). Built in béton brut (rough-cast concrete) because of post-war steel frame shortages, the Cité radieuse formed the inspiration for the confrontational Brutalist school of architecture which Wheatley and his designers seem to have adopted for Anthony Royal's buildings in the High-Rise movie. Suspended on large piloti containing 237 apartments over 12 floors, it is a fascinating, ugly/beautiful monolith of a building. Also incorporating shops, restaurants, medical and sporting facilities, even a hotel open to the public, the Unité d'habitation provides us the classic model of the self-contained, utopian “city in the sky” which we find satirised in Shivers and High-Rise.
Photos by Paul Koslowski, via FONDATION LE CORBUSIER.
What Le Corbusier and like-mined modernists sought to combat most of all was the normal organic evolution of cities. Traditionally, cities and urban settlements developed in an unplanned fashion, following the changing needs of their citizenry. For the modernists, infused by a passion for idealized mathematical order, this produced only a chaos, a detestable hodgepodge. The city street is noteworthy for its randomness: it leads us to chance encounters, unexpected detours, and the experience of various street theatres of public exhibitionism and desperation, pathos and comedy. This was unacceptable to the modernists; they sought in a very real sense to destroy the street. This was because they had a keen appreciation of what is today called pyschogeography, allied to an ideology of muscle-bound modernism.
The environment in which we live and work is not merely a series of functional or aesthetically pleasing locations that we use and enjoy in the course of our daily activities. Rather, the environment is an intrinsic part of our total experience. Like the food that we eat and the books that we read, it becomes a part of us, and has a profound, though often quite subliminal effect on our mental lives. As a corollary to the general mystery surrounding how the mental and physical interact with one another, place and mind are intertwined in various subtle ways. Le Corbusier and his disciples were not only aware of this, but they believed that urban planning was explicitly a form of social planning and control. Le Corbusier believed that there was a Plan, as unique and precise as the solution to an equation, for the design of urban settlements, which, once instigated, would inevitably yield a perfectly harmonious society. This was the meaning of his polemical slogan/question Architecture or Revolution? Environments are no longer to be determined by the unpredictable behaviour of people and history; rather this situation is reversed, so that a centrally planned and controlled environment begins to determine the behaviour of people and history.
This was why the modernists dreamed of razing vast areas of existing cities, and building new ones from scratch. Like contemporary neoliberal economists, they saw no room to gradually implement change; the world had to be remade in the image of their ideology. It is reductive, however, to view le Corbusier and early modernist architecture exclusively in the light of its dubious political underpinnings, and the ultimate failure of modernist urban planning. To do so, at any rate, overlooks his brilliance as an artist, and the fact that his buildings, viewed in isolation from his troubling manifestos, were often striking, even beautiful creations. Nevertheless, by the late sixties, the modernist ethos of urbanism was increasingly being viewed as a failure. Jane Jacobs' 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities was an influential critique, and a powerful argument for the spontaneity and ecological intelligence of the organic street over the mono-functional blocks of the modernist dream. In the waning fortunes of the high-rise in Great Britain, we find probably the most direct influence on Ballard's High-Rise: Erno Goldfinger's Trellick Tower. Goldfinger was a six-foot tall, taciturn Hungarian-born architect who moved to London in the '30s. He occupies a somewhat comical place in pop culture history: Ian Fleming found his architecture and general character disagreeable enough to christen the quintessential James Bond villain in his honour. When Goldfinger threatened legal action, a farcical clash between the two ensued, with Fleming threatening to change the name to Goldprick before the matter was settled out of court.
Commissioned by the London Council in 1966 for social housing in North Kensington, the 98 metre concrete behemoth of Trellick Tower is today regarded as a fashionable London icon. In its early years, however, it was nick-named the “Tower of Terror,” having acquired a reputation for litter, mechanical failure, and an epidemic of serious crimes and sexual assaults.
Top photograph by Andy Spain. Bottom image found at London From the Rooftops.
Sunday, February 14, 2016
That was how the old year ended, and the new began: with the image of the dead astronaut presiding over everything, its myriad associative meanings reflected in every surface, and every joy an overwrought fleeing from its grim determinism. In my head, occupying its own habitually strange environs, the danger was that Gabriel Summers’ corpse would become the symbol of the new century, a sort of capstone and negation of every dream of the previous one. It had the scope to be more than a symbol, to evolve into an entire mythology. Elor Summers had been for us the kind of aspirational icon that the rock star or film actor had been to our parents: the innovative entrepreneur with galaxy-spanning dreams; the youthful billionaire who’d sealed his fortune writing code in a dorm-room; the dynamic CEO who stirred his creatives to dreams of the future like generals sent soldiers to the imagined glories of a battlefield. Now he was a squat, broken figure, forever to be remembered as the man who sent his son to another world, never to return and never to be resurrected.
Even prior the Martian tragedy, however, our dreams had turned to orbit nightly around the themes of death and technology. Our lives had become rudderless, uncertain things: with job security a thing of the past, we were office nomads, working one and two month contracts in a dizzying succession of companies whose actual business we were no longer cognisant of; rents escalated so rapidly that urban-dwellers often carried their entire life-possessions around in ruck-sacks, using real-time trackers to monitor the ever-fluctuating geography of affordable rental zones. With all these assaults on our stability, all this narrowing of our aspirational horizons, one might have expected violence, revolution, or some degree of discontent to be the order of the day. In actuality, we were the most passive, anaesthetized generation imaginable. As though being led drugged over a precipice, our lives in this time of upheaval were dominated by algorithms and entertainment. The image of Gabriel Summers seemed on some level to echo our own – the image of a dead thing encased in a technological shell. The emergence of some upstart theology was surely required to rouse us from the peculiar condition of somnambulism which attended upon the early years of the new century.
Perhaps it was this yearning which had infused the imminent return of Tillinghast Nebula which such a weight of expectation. As with many of his contemporaries, the 80s had not been kind to the star's reputation and carefully cultivated mystique. The gods of the post-war youth explosion – those who'd made it through the other side – washed up on the shorelines of the 80s as middle-aged men, like a group of huddled revellers whom daylight had finally discovered, the joys and wayward, fleeting enthusiasms of their long night laid bare. The ultimate currency of their youth was gone, and popular music had shifted from the Dionysian mode to something like the regulated marching anthems of Plato's ideal autocratic regime. To have been iconic representations of youth in an era of unbridled youthfulness, their destiny was now to fall to the earth of middle-years with crushing velocity, and the 80s mowed through the dreams constellated around them like the Reaper with his scythe, revealing in high relief the comedy of all our lives, the parodies of ourselves that we will one day became, the nostalgias we will feel for an irretrievable zeitgeist.
Healthy, happily married, and having abandoned the chronic drug-use that somehow achieved an effect of synaesthesia between his own identity and the personae of his songs, Tillinghast was now a regular human being, after all. He flirted with world music and stadium rock, participated in several of the then popular live telecasts in support of global benevolence, and spoke wryly of his youthful misadventures on the chat show circuit. It was the beginning of a gradual retreat from the public eye which was all but complete by the late 90s.
He now lived with his family in a penthouse suite in New York's ill-omened Dakota Building, with public appearances as fleeting and inconclusive as those of UFOs. Various rumours regarding his mental condition were circulated by Mission Command, a Nebula fansite which was also steeped in the popular conspirative which held that entertainment superstars were divided between the mind-controlled proxies of secret political cabals (themselves the representatives of sinister Off World Interests), and a counter-force of insurgents who utilize the sorcery of mass media for benevolent means. Some said that Nebula was haunted by the re-emergence of his erstwhile alien personae, and the suspicion that the real life of an artist is an insubstantial shadow cast off by the more vivid existence of his creations. Others claimed that the star had become almost catatonic, and spent long, bedridden days in contemplation of a series of film props which he had accumulated over the years, and arranged in a puzzling tableau. This tableau was said to include the mirror from his own film Looking Glass (1975), the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939), the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and the buckskin shirt worn by Alan Ladd in Shane (1953).
What this particular juxtaposition of objects meant to the ageing star, we were not given to know. Perhaps in contemplating them, his mind journeyed through some archetypal landscape of deep-rooted personal significance – a notional Death Valley where Brandon deWilde's plaintive boy-cries still echoed after the receding image of the gunslinger; where Dorothy, Toto (here morphed by the errant logic of dreams into a Martian rover), the Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man still follow the Yellow Brick Road, past solitary cowpokes who strum their lullabies to dying fires and lost loves, onward to an Emerald City which has been replaced by the austere form of the Monolith, around which sanguine chimps play games of checkers and watch the sand sift to the bottom of hourglasses, as though waiting to witness some transformation denied to their species, something incalculable that resides far beyond wit, courage or heart.
It was also possible, of course, that Tillinghast was merely leading the life of a more or less typical husband and father, away from the prying eyes of the media, and a public who couldn't help but mythologise him, and couldn't concede that it had been only a performance, and a trick of the times.
Other winds of paranoia were blowing through the ether that January. On the 6th, a spoiler dropped on Noosfeed for the season 2 finale of Angel Investor. It was a catastrophe – people were so demoralized that they instantly shared it, figuring to spread the misery or something. After a couple of days, the spoiler was everywhere, not just on Noosfeed, but spilling out into the real world like a contagious and vindictive Tourette's . Various hitherto quote unquote normal people, seemingly unhinged by the effects of the reveal, were shouting it in the streets. Some bitter case hired a aeroplane to tow around a banner with the spoiler summarised until the authorities interceded. One friend of mine saw it tattooed on the shoulder of an elegant young Japanese neo-punk – another written in the sand on a beach, washed away by the tide an instant later.
So far I'd been inexplicably lucky. I hadn't got caught yet, but it meant I had to stay off Noosfeed, and walk around the streets in a hyper-alert paranoiac state. Whenever I went out, I listened to Tillinghast Nebula music on my head-phones, and tried to maintain a state of awareness whereby I wouldn't drift automatically into reading any text, or even lose my concentration sufficiently that some troll, aware of my head-phones, might somehow physically act out the spoil in a way that was instantly comprehensible to me. I may have been losing my mind a little, but it was interesting.
Having to avoid Noosfeed put me in a pickle, though, going beyond standard withdrawal symptoms. I'm a freelance entertainment/conspirative journalist. I contribute content to various 'Feed nodes and click-holes. I wanted to do some digging into the source of the spoiler itself. Most people think that major spoiler drops come from rival streamers, but that's just the beginning of it. Chinese hackers and Russian psi's have been probing the secrets of Western long-form narrative television for years, dropping spoilers through proxies as a form of destabilizing psychological warfare. Without Noosfeed, I was going to have to carry out my investigation in the Deeper Web.
It's a testament the success of the Deeper Web that not a great many people are aware of its existence. The problem with the Deep Web was that you just couldn't hide anything on it from the real specialists. No matter how many layers of encryption buried under, or how sophisticated the overlay network, government agencies had classified super-computing tech that opened it up as easy as clicking on a regular 'Feed node. As soon as any information is stored digitally, no matter how far from the beaten path, it is instantly available to intelligence agencies, many of whom have already gone further off the grid than you could imagine. So to move forward, the architects of the Deeper Web turned full-circle: they resolved that the only way to exchange information freely and safely was to restore an oral culture. The Deeper Web was a group of individuals – they called them USB Bards – who had elected to become the repositories and brokers of vast stores of contraband information. The USB Bards had undertaken an in-depth study of long lost mnemonic techniques going back to ancient Greece. Each Bard had their own virtual city which operated as a visual data base. Their powers of visualization were so intense that many of them were said to spend idle, opiated hours wandering the streets of their own notional principalities, and in the Deepest Web of all, the Bards shared notes amongst themselves on mysterious encounters they'd had therein.
Not only had the Bards mastered the ancient art of memory retention, but they also evolved entirely new techniques that made them equally adept at forgetting. Using the visual iconography of long outmoded desktop computers, the Bards could move memories into a Recycle Bin, and even permanently delete them, making them impervious to all forms of enhanced interrogation. It is widely believed that the peculiarly ascetic and neutral character of the USB Bard was a by-product of the fact that they edited their personal memories, removing traumatic emotional complexes in the manner of the system adumbrated in Hubbard's Dianetics, making themselves spectral and robotic in the process.
USB Bards exercise a series of different functions for clients, while ultimately following their own inscrutable agenda at all times. They carried insurance data dumps for whistle-blowers and sold credit details to carders; they saved a thousand things screamed by psychotics and whispered by dreamers in their sleep that otherwise would be lost forever; they sometimes acted as pornographers, recounting ten minute vignettes of amateur porn in an elevated poetic meter of their own creation, in performances which were prized as eerily erotic by connoisseurs; they stored film scripts, manuscripts of novels, philosophical treatises, lewd limericks and haiku which were deemed to have dangerous or subversive content; they saved things that people thought while they were shaving or emptying their bowels, fusing them into a single mosaic of transient impressions which was like a vast Joycean novel; they had created an index of plausibility for conspiratives, and shared information with low-level journalists like myself, again serving their own elusive long-term ends.
I had arranged a meet with my USB Bard, who called himself Malcolm, through the usual Whisperer, and an encryption code that utilized billboards, news-paper headlines, and the tilt of a high-street store mannequin's pelvis. I took a bus out into the mountains, and as soon I disembark, the otherness of the natural world hits me all at once. I feel like I've been in the city and staring at a screen too long, maybe, too long in the porous, schizophrenic, hectoring ambience of the street and the 'Feed. The hedgerows and the fields, the crows wheeling above and the cows with cautious, sluggish eyes, all seem to recognise me as an unwelcome intrusion. After trudging along for about ten minutes, I see the USB Bard standing by a rusty meadow gate, his form almost lost in a dense ticket of brambles. He wears a Burberry macintosh, navy pinstripe suit and bowler hat. He has an umbrella to complete the look. His skin is translucently pale, gleaming in the setting evening sun. When he speaks, it is the sound of a half-forgotten decade, an early morning before you were born.
“The most plausible conspiratives suggest the Angel Investor spoiler is Russian in origin....but the purpose of the release is not disruptive, but more in the line of a fact-finding exercise.”
“To find out facts about what, exactly?”
“I don't have any reliable conspirative to answer that. But bear certain things in mind: the character of the show's titular angel investor, Tyrone Crest, is believed to be modelled on Elor Summer. Conspiratives of moderate plausibility suggest that the failure of the Martian mission was due to sabotage.”
“Sabotage by whom? US government?”
“Unlikely to be US acting autonomously, more probably at the behest of a transnational, such as the GFAB.”
The Global Fiscal Advisory Board is an international think tank which meets under considerable secrecy and security every four years. It's stated purpose is to provide policy suggestions to ensure proper co-ordination in the economic strategies of the various transnational conglomerates: the IMF, World Bank, European Union, Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and so on. The GFAB was believed to be involved in the trading of insider information with a certain Off World Cartel, speculators on an interplanetary exchange index whose stocks and currencies are levels of sentient misery in different quadrants of the galaxy.
“Several moderately plausible conspiratives suggest that the plot of Angel Investor is a clearing-house for a mixture of genuine inside intelligence and carefully seeded disinformation. Hence, it seems likely that the Russians have dropped the spoiler in response to the possible sabotage of the Summers Mars mission, as a means to probe the attitude of the GFAB towards private-sector space exploration.”
“What the fuck is going on here?”
“I don't have any reliable conspirative to answer that. But consider this: a highly plausible conspirative suggests that Noostream have re-written the season finale episode, so that the spoiler is no longer strictly accurate. A question remains, however: if the spoiler was originally correct, but no longer, is it still a spoiler?”
The Bard looked at me with a peculiar intensity, as though matters of great import hinged on the solution to this abstruse problem.
“Some more information which may prove relevant. The name of Tillinghast Nebula's forthcoming album is Dog Star Lazarus Lounge Lizard. A highly plausible conspirative suggests that Nebula is dying, and intends the album – or some document associated with the album – to be his last will and testament.”
Sunday, January 31, 2016
It would be one of those years where nobody could imagine what was going to happen next. There was a certain eeriness infusing everything, owing to the conjunction of two events, on the surface unrelated to one-another: the death of the Mars astronaut Gabriel Summers, and the sudden return from obscurity and subsequent death of the glam rock icon Tillinghast Nebula. These events we imagined to be unrelated on any kind of literal level; in a subterranean logic of symbol and coincidence, however, the conjunction was bizarre, and pregnant with troubling resonances. Tillinghast Nebula's first big hit Mission Command (Radio Silence from the American Capsule) was a moon-landing novelty record about a doomed astronaut. In fact, when the Martian mission fell apart, and it first became apparent that Gabriel Summers would be stranded alone on the Red Planet, many people evoked the memory of Mission Command and its powerful depiction of a sympathetic, almost umbilical connection between humanity and the astronaut which they are powerless to save.
The connections went deeper, however, as Tillinghast had always presented himself to some degree as an alien marooned on our planet, as isolated in his own way as Summers' was in the arid desolation and radio silence of Mars. Tillinghast, though he had referenced many cosmic locations, real and imaginary, during his sci-fi glam rock phase, would always be associated primarily with the Red Planet. Then there was the timing of the events. Elor Summers, the venture capitalist and space entrepreneur announced in August that the Mars colonisation project had suffered a series of tragic set-backs, which resulted in the death of fourteen of the colonialists, leaving only his own son Gabriel alive. It was surely around this time that rumours first began to circulate on Noosfeed that Tillinghast Nebula was emerging from nearly a decade of seclusion, putting the finishing touches to a new record that would be released early in the coming year.
All through September and October, the world watched Gabriel Summers, the loneliest man in the solar system, via the video feed from TOTO, the robot rover that followed his every move, beaming back his daily struggles to millions of tablets and phones across the earth. The signal was one way; owing to the disastrous malfunction of Elor Summers' experimental technologies, we could not communicate with Gabriel. We could not tell him how much love we had for him, how ardently we hoped that he would persevere, and find some measure of happiness and reward in his isolated existence on the Red Planet. We could only watch the TOTO feed, hoping perhaps, by the same implicit belief in sympathetic magic which prompts people to cheer at athletes on a television screen, that the global force of our emotional investment and concentration, the perfect synchronisation of our hopes and desires, might somehow travel the vast distance between earth and Mars, another signal bouncing invisibly across the blackness.
How was it that our emotional lives had became so entwined with the fortunes of the lonely astronaut? For years, it seems to me, all our minds had been blurring together, ever since Noosfeed superseded all the previous search engines and social networks, and gradually we spent more and more of our days scrolling through this vast, fragmentary hive mind. Though few of us cared to acknowledge it, we no longer consumed books, magazines, or news in any conventional sense of the term; rather we contributed our share to an endless stream of transitory points of emotional engagement that were always moving downstream, a ceaseless flow of ironic hieroglyphics, Pavlovian arguments, and conspiratorial rumours that moulded our minds, and melded them together until all experience seemed vacuous unless it could be shared on Noosfeed, and our private consciousness felt either valueless, or something precious which we could no longer regain. In this fashion, our minds had ebbed together in a communal retreat from a world which seemed beyond our ability to understand or exert any control over; a world which we all felt intuitively was falling apart and coming undone while we shared our piecemeal, opiated Noosfeed dreams.
It was a natural, then, that our emotional lives, already concretized as a single, amalgamated entity by Noosfeed, could become affixed to that of the lonely astronaut. Feeling subconsciously that society and culture had reached a dead-end spiral on planet earth, we could look to Gabriel Summers as an embodiment of our collective hope that mankind might perhaps succeed elsewhere in the universe. That we could start afresh; that we would not renew the same mistakes, the same interminable tragedies, which had marred our earthly cradle, and sapped our great promise. This was the scale of the burden we placed on the astronaut's shoulders; we had made him an every-man figure whose great ill-fortune and sufferings would be a test by which the whole worth of the species might be judged. Just as our own lives had become increasingly artificial and untethered from tangible reality, Gabriel Summers existed in world of hyper-reality: in the brooding, blasted landscape of the dead planet, and the daily struggle to survive and remain sane, there was no distraction of any kind from the sheer facts of his existence.
We watched him as he worked on the terraformed pavilion which would provide food when his supply of protein pills ran out. We shared his appalling loneliness, the deep troughs of his despair, the moments when he contemplated suicide. Our moods followed precisely after his in their every ebb and flow; you could feel it in the air when Gabriel smiled at TOTO, and faced the chores of his day with courage and equanimity. Market fluctuations, crime and suicide rates, the fashions and sexual currents of big cities, everything on earth became entwined with the distant activities of the lonely astronaut, with subtle nuances in the language of his space-suited body, with rocks and patterns glimpsed in the ochre dust of the dead planet. When Gabriel began to speak of a presence encountered out there in the brooding Martian valleys and desert expanses, even the world's most ardent atheists thrilled privately with the notion of experiencing the emergence of a new religious gnosis, specific to the Martian environment. The night that he told TOTO that Mars was thronged with ghosts, we wondered if his sanity was slipping away again.
In those same days when Gabriel Summers spoke in halting whispers of a host of Martian ghosts, the world was also stirring with the rumoured return of Tillinghast Nebula, the decadent glam rock icon from the Golden Age of Pop. Tillinghast had all but vanished for a decade; no records, no tours, even his sporadic acting career had dried up. Nevertheless, the mystique of the ageing pop star grew if anything more palpable in the years of his absence. The myths of his youth were renewed, and we almost began to believe again that he might really be an alien. Born in the same year as the flying saucer, and finding his first flush of fame in the shadow of the Apollo moon-landing, Nebula would always be identified with the complex web of anxieties and desires surrounding the figure of the extraterrestrial. Early on in his career, he found some happy serendipity in the double-meaning of the word star: the distant luminescences of the night sky, and the new type of humanity created by the mass media. The star in the sky was a vast thing rendered tiny by great gulfs of interstellar space; the star in the media landscape was a relatively insignificant thing (a person like any other) magnified to giant proportions by some alchemy of technology and fantasy.
Just as the journey to the stars had been regarded as an apotheosis in outer space, Tillinghast reasoned that the ascension to the status of an icon in the media age could be an apotheosis of inner space. The surrealists dreamed of collapsing the distinction between the unconscious and the world of everyday reality; the star achieved this by reifying his private fantasies, and making them the communal fantasy of his audience. Tillinghast was particularly obsessed with the archetypal story of a being who descends, either voluntarily or by misadventure, from a higher realm to a lower one. In the lower realm, he is a messianic figure, a teacher, and a subversive disruptor of social mores and conventions. Like all mystically-minded rockers, Tillinghast was particularly enamoured of the figure of Dionysus, the exotic outsider-god who foments an ecstatic, underground gnosis in woodland groves and hidden places, a new mystery cult whose sacraments are irresistible to women, hysterics, and other figures marginalized by the dominant society. In the twentieth century, this fallen god had to be an extraterrestrial; Superman had proved that. So Tillinghast created an image which was androgynous like Dionysus, but also bizarre and otherworldly, like a fashion-spread from some other dimension, normally only accessible via magic mushrooms or psychotic episode. The image was repellent and absurd to the middle-aged gate-keepers of dystopian orthodoxy, but held a instant, talismanic power over the still protean adolescents.
For Tillinghast, the story of the rock star as alien messiah could only end in one of two ways. In some versions, the alien is destroyed by his own fans, dismembered and consumed as a transubstantiated body, a host or plasmate of some indecipherable future sexuality. In the other version, he is destroyed by his own ego, having become tainted by the lures and deceptions of the lower world. Lost in a stupor of satiation and boredom, he gazes forlornly at the stars he has lost, never to be regained. Working around variations of this basic mythic template, Nebula created a dizzying variety of science fictional personae during the height of his fame: Technical Tilly the Erotic Scientist from the Crab Nebula, Apollo Elsewhere and the Venusian Teddy Boys, the Diamond Android Geisha, and so on. After the glam boom faded, an increasingly cocaine-frazzled Tillinghast went through his “Germanic phase”, a period marked by his obsession with Wilhelm Reich, the “Odic Force” theorized by Baron Carl von Reichenback, Nazi occultism, and the so-called “Berlin school” of experimental electronic music. In a notoriously erratic Melody Maker interview, Nebula declared that the Apollo 11 Lunar Module was “clearly an Orgone Accumulator, part of some Masonic rite.”
In the late 70s, Nebula hired a crack team of Philadelphia soul session musicians to record The Unmoved Mover on the Dance Floor, a concept album that boldly mixed earthy disco grooves with Scholastic metaphysics. On that record, his persona was a mysterious Gatsby-like figure who haunts various discotheques, elegant but aloof, dancing without passion and seemingly enslaved by an elusive memory. Occasionally, he brings revellers back to an LA mansion where sombre cheetahs lounge by the swimming pool, and a sinister valet, stationed in the rest room, spooks revellers by declaiming in a neutral voice: “Welcome to the Villa of Ormen.” When the guests enquire as the whereabouts of the host, he replies: “You've swallowed it.”
In the 80s, tapping into the new Zeitgeist of conspicuous consumption, Nebula reinvented himself once again as the Thin White Speculator (or the Tycoon Who Sold the World to Off-World Interests). A sinister, bespectacled figure clad in Armani, the Speculator amassed his vast fortune through a series of technologically advanced patents which transformed the world: a 3D Projector Hi-Fi System that rendered the Pop Star obsolete; Aseity, the lucid dreaming aid/anti-depressant drug that replaced film, television, video games, and even politics to a large extent; Impolex R, the new synthetic fabric whose colour changes in tandem with the mood of the wearer, leading to a post-privacy era in which monogamy is obsolete due to the immediate blatancy of sexual arousal. In this anaesthetized new culture inaugurated by the Speculator, everybody wears skin-tight Impolex R onesies, transforming the streets into an impressionistic riot of fluctuating mood-tones; people engage in open sexual encounters in office cubicles and sub-way trains, before retiring to the seclusion of their conapts, where they drift away on ultra-vivid Aseity trips, complex Choose Your Adventure psychodramas aided by New Age music and 3D Hi Fi visualizations.
The Speculator himself continues to wear Armani (on the few occasions where he had worn an Impolex R onesie, it remained stationary in an unearthly shade of deep purple, suggesting the presence of an emotion unknown and utterly indecipherable to other human beings.) He plays the market without passion, and sits at restaurant terraces, watching the sand fall through an hourglass which he carries at all times in his briefcase. Like all Nebula's latter personae, there is an air of abstraction and aloofness, a suggestion of an alien who has completed a fact-finding mission, and now longs to be repatriated back to his homeland. Earth time, however, is much slower, and the memory of his homeland is diminishing, day by day, becoming fragmentary, dreamlike, the subject for a work of art or a tremulous religious faith. At the end of the album, Tillinghast has come full-circle; the Speculator has resolved to become a cosmic glam rock star, in order to shake humanity out of the glazed stupor his off-world technologies have inaugurated, and to provide for himself a mythic record of his homeland which will survive his own forgetfulness.
Of all the personae Nebula adopted, perhaps the most bizarre and uncharacteristic was David Jones, the timid, unfulfilled working class youth he played in his film debut Looking Glass (1975). Written by Nebula in collaboration with its director, the ill-fated Kenneth Anger associate Chris Arlington, Looking Glass was a mediation on the nature of fame and the perennial theme of the doppelgänger. David Jones is the polar opposite of Tillinghast Nebula: a shy and repressed young Londoner who works as a night porter in a slightly seedy East End hotel called the Sheldrake Inn. David was raised by his over-bearing mother Janis (Diana Dors), his father having died in WW2. He has an older brother who has been hospitalized for some unspecified illness, probably schizophrenia, a tragedy which hovers unspoken over David's relationship with Janis.
At the start of the movie, David is twenty-six years old. He has just separated from his wife and young child, for reasons never clearly specified, although Janis harangues him for “not being a bloody man.” Becoming alienated from his boisterous, going nowhere friends, and crippled by shyness towards the opposite sex, David begins to slide into a depression. Suffering from insomnia, he works by night in the hotel, and by day walks the streets aimlessly, brooding over the apparently unending litany of humiliations that his life has become. One day, he wanders on a whim into an antique and curio store. Inside the shop, he pauses to look at his reflection in an art-Deco mirror. The image that greets him, though clearly that of his own face, is a completely different person in every other regard: a glamorous, otherworldly and androgynous figure, with long hair, elaborate make-up, and an expression of self-confidence bordering on mockery.
Alarmed by the apparition in the mirror, which seems to manifest his own latent potentialities and submerged desires, David runs out into the street, and finds himself in a London somehow different from the one he is familiar with. Hair and clothing styles have changed; news-paper headlines adopt a peculiar tone, and the billboards advertise unrecognisable products that appeal to desires more commonly suppressed. Many people stop and stare at David, and soon he realizes why: there are posters everywhere for the androgynous double he saw the mirror, who seems to be some kind of pop-star called Tillinghast Nebula. The attention from the pedestrians becomes more intense, and he hears their whispering voices amplified like the drone of an angry beehive:
“Is that him?”
“It can't be him, he looks normal.”
“It must be him, look at his eyes.”
“The hair is completely different.”
“He must be in disguise.”
“They do that sometimes, to see if they get noticed.”
“Tillinghast...is that you?”
“He was a bloody poof on Top of the Tops.”
“It is him.”
“Tilly, over here!”
“Over here, Tilly!
Panicked, David starts running, and a sequence of rapid, jagged cuts suggest a nervous breakdown of some kind. He comes to back in the antique shop, looking at the mirror again, but now his reflection has returned to normal. The proprietor, a tall, elderly gentleman with a kindly, if distracted, expression, addresses him from the counter: “I check the looking glass myself, Sir, from time to time, just to make sure I haven't gone anywhere since the last time I looked! But there I be, always looking back at myself. You'd have to be quick on the draw, Sir, to beat the man in the mirror! It's a queer life for him, though, no? First thing in the morning and last thing at night, grooming and washing and shaving and squeezing spots and scrubbing and looking, Sir, looking very intently, as though either of you knew any better who the other really was. How does he occupy himself in-between times, that's what I wonder. Does he simply sleep all day, in a quiet, empty mirror world? Or does he have his freedom, Sir, while you're not at the mirror, his freedom to wander around in a empty world, all the while perhaps wondering why you get to live in the real world, and he only in the looking glass one? It occurs to me, Sir, that the man in the mirror must resent us bitterly, we who he must imitate in all our private moments, in our vanities and insecurities. It seems to me that sometimes people change, abruptly, without any apparent cause. Well, Sir, might it not be that their reflection found a way to take a hold of them, and swap places? What would a reflection do, I wonder, given autonomy over a real body? I think about these kinds of things, Sir, when the shop is quiet.”
A few years pass. David starts working as a clerk for a legal firm, and marries again, this time to art teacher Sara (Jane Asher). Bored and frustrated by his work, however, he continues to brood over a sense of missed opportunities and life passing him by. “I was meant to do something,” he tries to explain to Sara, “something else, and I was meant to be somebody else, but I missed the boat, somehow.” Sara, meanwhile, growing resentful of his passive, reclusive nature, begins an affair with older PE teacher Reggie (Stanley Baker).
One day, while David is waiting to cross the street, an immaculate limousine pulls up alongside. The window rolls down, and once again he is presented with his double. The androgyne, looking frailer than before, is clad in a tuxedo, and rests his chin on a cane, cradled in brittle, twitching hands. He is accompanied by two women: an African with sharp cheekbones and large, limpid eyes, and a voluptuous red-head in witchy bohemian rags. The women point at David and laugh, but the androgyne regards him with a peculiar, quizzical expression. The window rolls back up, and the limo drifts out of view.
Over the course of the following weeks, he begins to see the androgyne more frequently. Passing by an art gallery with an all-glass facade, he sees his double holding court, surrounded by Japanese conceptual artists and beautiful, vacuum-eyed pleasure seekers. On another occasion, he chances on the androgyne scurrying with a group of revellers from a taxi to the foyer of a once elegant hotel. This time, he is disguised as a mime, and his entourage a boisterous group of medieval mummers; they sprint into the hotel like nocturnal creatures startled by the daylight. Each time their eyes met, the double regards him with the same puzzling expression: a look not quite of recognition, but more of one grappling with the elusive meaning of some anomalous presentiment like a deja vu. Bizarrely, the locations in which these encounters take place – the art gallery, the hotel, an apartment block – can never be found again, suggesting some kind of fleeting intersection between the real London and a phantasmal reflection of the city, a double like his own, alike and yet subject to an alternate destiny.
David returns to the antique shop where the first apparition of the double took place. “Yes, I remember you, Sir, indeed I do. You were quite taken with a looking glass, Sir, and stared into it for such a long while, as though you were are at the pictures! Where is the mirror now, Sir? Well, it was actually sold not long after the very day you yourself were admiring it, if you can believe that. One of my most esteemed customers, a visitor, Sir, a foreigner with very refined and unusual tastes.”
At this point, David's life is at its lowest ebb. His first wife is happily re-married, and his son, now six, barely recognises him. His own marriage is disintegrating into a nightmare of silence and recrimination. To add to his increasingly tenuous grip on his identity, Janis has started to confuse him with his mentally-ill older brother; “You should be more like your brother David,” she keeps telling him. While his own life falls apart, he becomes increasingly fixated on his double, and the idea that it is the mysterious androgyne who has stolen all the opportunities which should by right have been his. His double gets to live out all his dreams – his fantasies of sexual indulgence and wealth, fame, beauty and brilliance – while he is forced to endure only the grey daylight, the drudgery and disappointment by which such flights of appetite and imagination acquire their full lustre and intensity. He becomes obsessed by the notion that he must kill his double, and destroy the thief, the imposter, who had stolen his destiny.
One morning, David is seated at a bench in Hyde Park, and Tillinghast Nebula joins him, the pair sitting in silence for a moment before Tillinghast speaks:
“I first saw you many years ago, when my career was just taking off. I was on acid and made the terrible mistake of just wandering off down the street without anybody to mind me. People were staring at me, of course, and recognising me, and that felt good at first. But after awhile I started to hear their thoughts, buzzing in my head, and it was driving me crazy. Some of them wanted to fuck me and some of them wanted to be me and some of them wanted to kill me and some of them just wanted the frisson of interacting with a famous person. I had this utterly depressing realization that I was nobody, and the reason they reacted to me in that way had more to do with their own lives – with how some awful Machinery had narrowed the horizons of most people's lives down to such an extent that the celebrity – any celebrity - became a focal point for all their emotions, their fetishes, the commodity dreams that the Machinery had been beaming into their brains since they were children.”
“I had a panic attack, and I think I started running. When I came back to my senses, I'd taken refuge in an antique shop. I wandered over to this mirror, and when I looked in, I saw you, not myself, and yet I knew you were myself. I knew it was real, too, not the acid. So a few days later, I bought the mirror, because I knew it wasn't any ordinary mirror. Among dealers of antiques and rare books, you see, there are sometimes magicians, who hide magical objects among everyday things – cursed books, music boxes that induce somnambulism, puzzle boxes that summon demons, things like that – knowing that certain sensitive people will be drawn to them. That mirror, I eventually learned, was a gateway between worlds. You needed to position it in different places, and eventually you would notice one detail in the reflection that was different, one tiny detail that told you that you were looking into a different world. In time, you developed the capacity to pass through the looking glass, into the other world, taking parts of your world with you. But we had seen each other – that's why our different worlds became intertwined.”
“When you pass through the looking glass, you learn that there are a multitude of different worlds, each of which is essentially the same, but each of which actualizes different possibilities. In each of those worlds, there is a different you, experiencing an alternate destiny. All your dreams, nightmares, strange fugitive memories, sensations of deja vu, are all fragments of the other lives you are living concurrently in different dimensions. Another you endures your worst fears; another enjoys your keenest fantasies. There is a kind of economy, a balance, of destinies and desires, gratuities of fortune and grief, ranging across an infinity of forking paths and permutations. You and I make one-another, you see; I am a creature of your longings and fantasies, and you are a creature of my fears an insecurities. The star and his public. I know you feel that I have taken something from you, but in reality, we only give to one another. We weren't brought together to kill the other, but to take one-another's place.”
It transpires that Nebula had been dreaming for years of a perfect escape from the chaotic and insular world he'd created around himself. Having become one of the most recognisable faces on his world, he grew obsessed with the now exotic and unattainable quality of anonymity. To walk down a street without exciting the drama and burden of people's expectations, projections and fantasies was a distant memory, an act of impossible magic like some conjuring trick he once knew but could never re-learn. Everything he'd achieved, in the end, had imprisoned him: consigned him for life to a cloistered world of sycophants and acolytes, mind-numbing and life-threatening indulgences, fame and drugs making his mind into an all-enveloping fishbowl, a mansion with sprawling, maddening corridors, mirrored walls, and no exit.
David returns to his wife, and tells her that he needs to go away for a short while to clear his head. He promises that things will be better when he returns. He visits Janis, joining her on the balcony of her flat. “I'm going away for a little while,” he says. “You'll not go anywhere”, she laughs, “too fragile you are, afraid of everything. You'll not go five metres from the door without needing somebody to hold your hand. You should be more like your brother David, you should.” He had Tillinghast then adjourn to a decrepit, shadowy Kensington town house, and we watch in a long, ingeniously edited sequence as they swap identities, David becoming the glam rock icon, and Tillignhast the shy, melancholy clerk and cuckold.
It's dawn when they've finished, and Tillinghast begins experimenting with the mirror, positioning it in different parts of the room. Finally placing it at a slant on front of the fireplace, his eyes dart rapidly from the reflection back to the room itself. “There we are,” he says finally, “look.” In the mirror, he shows David a narrow tracery of cracks on the reflected ceiling that aren't present on the ceiling above. “Focus on that detail,” he instructs, “look at it very carefully, and then look at your own reflection. If you do it properly you'll start to feel like you're actually in the mirror, not out here. Once that happens, it will be time to go through.” After performing this meditative exercise for some time, David begins to experience the vertiginous sensation of his point of view shifting from outside to inside the mirror; one moment he is looking at the reflection, and the next at Tillinghast and himself as though through a window from the outside. Eventually, he feels as though he has morphed fully into a reflection, a pristine creature of light that only attends upon a physical body. Tillinghast has his arms on his shoulders now, nudging him gently through the looking glass. “It's a little disorientating at first”, he whispers, “but there's only one way to learn how to swim.”
Through the looking glass, David Jones (now Tillinghast Nebula) experienced all his fantasies in a giddy rush, and died shortly thereafter, a glorious rock n' roll suicide. The real Tillinghast Nebula retired into the seclusion and anonymity of David Jones' life, eventually raising a family with Sara and living to old age. As he got older, the memory of his hedonistic adventures as the glam rock icon began to fade, remaining only as fragments of an otherworldly carnival, a free festival which he'd attended only his dreams, his youthful dreams of a golden age when high technology made stars and rockets, and new gospels that were written in radio signals and received by television antennas.
Late in November, the tragedy struck, throwing a pall over the world. Millions were watching the TOTO feed as Gabriel drove the Mars Buggy at a brisk clip along the edge of a very steep, rocky slope, faithful TOTO hurtling after him. Many people subsequently claimed that they felt a palpable tension, even before Gabriel parked the Mars Buggy, but I suspect that this was only with the benefit of hindsight. Why did the lonely astronaut stop the Buggy, and start clambering up the slope? We will never know. The most common theory is that he saw a metallic object glinting up there, and went to explore. Others have argued that the flickering light source on the slope is merely a camera artefact. Whatever the explanation, his behaviour becomes peculiarly rash. TOTO cranes his head upward, and we watch Gabriel clambering almost frantically up the cliff-face. He pauses from time to time to look back, and we can only read our own interpretations into the expression of the tiny, pixillated face in the space helmet.
Then everything falls apart. A foothold crumbles beneath his feet, and Gabriel is tumbling back down in a hail of dust and stones, his arms failing and clutching the air. The millions watch, frozen, hapless. They are telling themselves that Gabriel will be okay, that he will pick himself off the ground and make some self-deprecating joke. When he is about half way down, however, we hear a sickening crack; his space helmet has struck a boulder. We hear those fast, heavy breaths; those dying breaths that filled the world, and haunt it ever after. Now he is on the ground, crawling towards the Buggy, a desperate bid to get to the spare breathing apparatus. He gets so close to salvation, so close it is almost a miracle. TOTO observes the struggle with a detachment that seems preternatural. Gabriel reaches the Buggy, but by then it is all over. He slumps against the vehicle, positioning himself so that his body, arms outstretched like a saviour, faces TOTO, and the eyes of the world. TOTO, following his programme to keep Gabriel in his sights at all times, has not moved since. Nobody wants to look, but nobody can turn their eyes away. We tuned in on a nightly basis, charting the rapid decay of our idol, the symbol of our hope. The scene was one of utter stillness, interrupted only now and then by older Martian rovers that sauntered eerily by, carrying out the functions of obsolete reconnaissance missions, programmes they would follow until their circuitry finally burns itself out. In that vast, lonely backdrop, we watched Gabriel's beautiful face become shrunken and discoloured.
One day, we tuned in, and the transformation was complete: only the skull remained inside the space helmet. The image was complete now, like a painting or a religious icon, which conjoined in the one crumpled figure the dream of the stars and end of all dreaming flesh.