“The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
Historically, trying to predict the future has produced questionable results. Take a look at any number of ‘retro futures’, described by science, literature or a succession of sci-fi films… Most are laughable, but since the internet and the growth spurt of related technology something’s changed.
Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century. –JG Ballard
Drone warfare, sex robots, algorithmic surveillance, election-interfering Russian bots…
Almost overnight, a sci-fi ‘future’ has begun to infiltrate our daily mundanity. We no longer need predictions we just need to our open eyes, but what we see has antecedents in places we may not want to scrutinise too closely…
Ultra-violence and transgression
Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’ stands out as an oddity in the realm of futuristic visions. It’s set in a time not far distant, a dislocated society doesn’t dare venture out after dark. We’re not given too many clues as to the actual structure of this society but gangs roam the streets looking to take pleasure in senseless violence. The book put a deadly spin on the birth pangs of teenage revolt. The anti-hero, Alex and his ‘droogs’ recreational drug use rape and murder killings is just a shortish hop to the ultra violence of recreational rape, casual murder, and other psychopathologies later set to music by Stanley Kubrick.
Written in 1962 as a meditation on casual violence Burgess documents the maturation of youth culture while making very valid point about the State violence and the reaction of the disempowered. But there two sides to this argument and two endings to this story…
In Burgess’ original text published in Europe, the anti-hero, Alex, reformed himself. It was’t a result of state action via the insidious conditioning process he simply grew up, became an adult, started thinking about… babies. Aged 21 in the 21st chapter, the symbolism is perfect for the age of enlightenment, modernity’s ‘happy’ ending.
As a critique of capitalist culture it makes its point, but theres anorther point being made that applies more closely to our current state.
The American edition, forced on Burgess by the Stateside publisher avoids this ‘wimping out’ by removing the final chapter. In this other ending Alex overcomes the treatment and emerges to fight another day and more adventures in ultra violence beckon. Ripe for a sequel, you could cynically argue, it’s the American way, freedom is the thing, even if it’s the freedom to rape and pillage. And Alex and his droogs have style. They have their own slang, their way of dressing. If you’re not with us you’re against us… it’s the certainty of fully energised youth.
It’s transgressive, it’s seductive. It’s the ‘rebel without a cause’ turned nasty.
In her book ‘Kill All Normies’, Angela Nagle documents the ongoing ‘culture wars’ raging across the internet and the rise of a largely right wing and nihilistic meme culture.
They have style, acerbic wit, transgressive panache and numbers. They mob together, bully, intimidate and ‘dox’ their victims with zero apparent remorse. How far this leads offline and into the real world is open to debate but Nagle has documented actual cases of murder later celebrated by these newly evolving droogs. This is an ‘outsider’ culture that would have been invisible and unknown without the internet.
The fringe is suddenly in our faces and anyone who suggests that ‘ultra-violence’ is something restricted to teens has never stood in a baying football crowd of 30 to 50-somethings screaming blue murder at their opposition and fully prepared to follow through.
Historically, in the west, cultural rebellions are eventually neutered, punk turns commercial, consumerism triumphs, but this time it’s not going to plan. The transgression is not being commodified.
Meme tropes of self-aware ugliness are retaining their ugliness and multiplying.
Shattering the progress myth
Contrary to popular belief, I’d suggest the web was never a continuation of ‘enlightened thinking’ – the age of reason that gifted us logic, tolerance and fraternity – it was the technical stage in the break with that tradition. As we began looking into dark places, the future noticed us. It turned and began rushing to meet us.
Written in 1962, A Clockwork Orange witnesses the birth of the teenage outsider and pre-dates some worst excesses of gang culture waiting to happen. There’s a prescience at work, a warning perhaps of the excesses to come. Burgess’s ‘enlightened’ position very much ties in with the notion of progress. A post-war Europe was at last beginning to prosper and the idea of progress made absolute sense, capitalism was sent to liberate us… but ended up turning us mad.
So where are we now?
Staring into an abyss that lives in our own heads. For the first time in our history we’re able to witness our collective nakedness. Its not pretty. There’s an Alex in all of us but to simply turn away and impose ideology is no longer going to work.
I’d argue that ugliness, as a transgressive moment of self awareness doesn’t have to manifest hatefully. It can also be a part of creative self-discovery.
This is the time in our history when we most need our eyes wide open. Alex was forced to witness his own ugliness in order to cure him of his own ugliness. This is a double negative and two wrongs don’t make a right. We are everything that’s bad but everything that’s good too. These waters are choppy, there will be drownings, but there’s only one direction to go now.
Whatever next step we take it’ll be with a greater knowledge of who are and what we might be capable of. There’s no turning back.
Orpheus had nothing on us…