Monday, June 24, 2013

The Kittlerian horror of Fritz Leiber

 Recently I noticed how perfectly the bleak theories of Friedrich Kittler resonate with the bleak phantasies of Fritz Leiber. Below I quote a description of (one of) Kittler's theories. Now in your mind replace "language" by "technology". And then read the two excerpts of Fritz Leiber:
Kittler’s analysis presupposes that we are not masters of our language. Language was there before us, we grew up surrounded by it, we grew into it, it colonized us – whatever “us” was before it was framed, carved up, and identified by language. ... We do not speak language as much as language speaks us. To phrase it in the shortest way possible, language subjects us. [1]
In the first excerpt, oil / petroleum is not the servant of mankind but its master. And it permeates our whole society and is ever present and all knowing. And it is communicating with (some of) us:
Daloway's theory, based on his wide readings in world history, geology, and the occult, was that crude oil — petroleum — was more than figuratively the life-blood of industry and the modern world and modern lightning-war, that it truly had a dim life and will of its own, an inorganic consciousness or sub-consciousness, that we were all its puppets or creatures, and that its chemical mind had guided and even enforced the development of modern technological civilization.
Created from the lush vegetation and animal fats of the Carboniferous and adjoining periods, holding in itself the black essence of all life that had ever been, constituting in fact a great deep-digged black graveyard of the ultimate eldritch past with blackest ghosts, oil had waited for hundreds of millions of years, dreaming its black dreams, sluggishly pulsing beneath Earth's stony skin, quivering in lightless pools roofed with marsh gas and in top-filled rocky tanks and coursing through myriad channels and through spongy rocky bone, until a being evolved on the surface with whom it could realize and expend itself. When man had appeared and had attained the requisite sensitivity, and technical sophistication, then oil-like some black collective unconscious — had begun sending him its telepathic messages. [2a]
And in the second excerpt, electricity has a mind of its own. And this "medium", this technology is also ever present and all knowing. It might seen friendlier than oil, but in the end it will prove just as lethal:
“Yep, I hear voices in the electricity,” Mr. Leverett said dreamily. “Electricity tells me how it roams the forty-eight states — even the forty-ninth by way of Canadian power lines. It's sort of pioneer-like: the power wires are its trails, the hydro-stations are its water holes. Electricity goes everywhere today — into our homes, every room of them, into our offices, into government buildings and military posts. And what it doesn't learn that way it overhears by the trace of it that trickles through our phone lines and over our air waves. Phone electricity's the little sister of power electricity, you might say, and little pitchers have big ears. Yep, electricity knows everything about us, our every last secret. Only it wouldn't think of telling most people what it knows, because they believe electricity is a cold mechanical force. It isn't—it's warm and pulsing and sensitive and friendly underneath, like any other live thing." ...
Mr. Leverett, silently rocking, said, "Electricity tells me about all the work it does and all the fun it has—dances, singing, big crackling band concerts, trips to the stars, foot races that make rockets seem like snails." ... "Electricity doesn'tmind working for us. It's generous-hearted and it loves its job. But it would be grateful for a little more consideration—a little more recognition of its special problems." [2b]
I'm also very much reminded of William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, Thomas Pynchon and William Vollmann. Now the question is: If writers from 30-40 years ago feel so extremely modern ... then who are the writers that correctly predict our current future? How can we find them?

[1] Winthrop-Young, Geoffrey, Kittler and the Media (TM - Theory and Media)
[2] The Black Gondolier and Other Stories,  Fritz Leiber: [a] The Black Gondolier, [b] The Man who made friends with Electricity
[3] Cascade, Joep van Lieshout,
[4] Electricity pylons in the "green heart" of Holland

1 comment:

  1. Petr,
    I love when you create a post such as this one. An invitation to explore a pattern of understanding relationships in systems. Both scary and intriguing i.e. Actor Network Theory meets, Mitochondrial Singularity creating a quasi biosemiotics?

    And of course you always juxtapose philosophy with photos and literature. Very nice!!