Technical Ecstasy: Futurism and Dystopia

28 February 2009

technical_ecstasy

If no one has yet pursued a sociology of futurism this is certainly a field that would offer rich rewards to the inspired investigator who could intuitively search out the deeper themes beneath and behind the pervasive futuristic images of popular culture. The Future is a pervasive and palpable presence in our lives today in a way that it was not in the past. I visited this topic yesterday in Permutations of Imagination. Today I will take it in another direction.

In his Flying Saucers, Jung wrote, “something is seen, but one doesn’t know what.” Regardless of whether or not flying saucers exist, and, if they exist, what exactly they are, the simple fact that something is seen is significant. In the same spirit we can observe that, in regard to the future, something is imagined, regardless of what it may be. That contemporary imagination is filled with visions of the future is significant, and whatever our opinion may be of these visions, that these visions and fictions and imaginings are so pervasive is a matter that deserves our attention.

jung_flying_saucers

The futurism industry is a wide-eyed and wild-eyed breathless anticipation of the technological utopia of the near future. We have seen something like this in the past with the tradition of utopian literature . We have seen something closer to this (closer, that is, than utopian literature comes) in millenarian expectation. Throughout Western history, at least from the Middle Ages to the present, there have been millenarian movements that have encouraged the gullible to belief that the millennium is at hand, that the end of life as we know it is nigh, to be replaced by a benign, humane, and desirable social order.

The futurism of the futurists, the early twentieth century aesthetic movement announced by Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, could actually be said to be rather better at prediction than the techno-futurists who explicitly committed themselves to predictions. The aesthetic futurists exulted in a world of machines, violence and speed, and in fact it could be argued that that is exactly the world that we have today. Did not Shelley say that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world? Perhaps they are also the unacknowledged prophets of the world.

Boccioni's Materia: The Futurists celebrated a world of violence and speed, and in so doing were better at predicting the future than self-appointed forecasters.

Boccioni's Materia: The Futurists celebrated a world of violence and speed, and in so doing were better at predicting the future than self-appointed forecasters.

Popular science fiction, in the form of films and television (and, to a lesser extent, novels — and this because films and television reach a mass audience that does not read), is a very different beast than is futurism, that is to say, techno-futurism. Whereas techno-futurism is utopian and hopeful (sufficiently so that it often appears prima facie naïve), the futurism represented by popular science fiction films is largely dystopian.

There are many counter-examples to this, of course, and some of these counter examples are among the most popular of the science fiction offerings of popular culture. The Star Wars film franchise began life as a straight-up tale of adventure and heroism. George Lucas explicitly acknowledged his debt to Joseph Campbell’s famous study Hero of a Thousand Faces. But even as this feel-good story of Luke Skywalker develops, although it goes through a heart-warming story of the redemption of Darth Vader, it also descends toward the end into something not unlike classic dystopian science fiction.

Even a satisfying tale of heroism and adventure has its dark moments.

Even a satisfying tale of heroism and adventure has its dark moments.

Another important exception is the Star Trek franchise of both film and television fame. Gene Roddenberry’s vision was unapologetically utopian, though the long-term development of these ideas within the context of the “future history” presumed by the franchise is rife in darker themes. The original Star Trek series had more the character of a Medieval morality play than a utopian fiction, and it was moreover a morality play set against the background of a Cold War, though instead of the US and the USSR, this future Cold War was between the Federation and the Klingons. The dramatic need for an effective villain required the creative minds of the franchise to continue digging, and they hit upon a recurring nightmare: automatonism.

One of the perennial themes of dystopian science fiction is that of the robot, the machine, or, even worse, mankind transformed into a unfeeling, zombie-like machine. The Star Trek franchise effectively exploited this perennial nightmare by introducing The Borg as the villain in absence of the Klingons, who were transformed into allies. And The Borg constitutes a rather more chilling and frightening image than any the Klingon once presented. Everything about The Borg seems tailored to evoke our revulsion.

The Borg Queen: one of the creepiest and most menacing film villains of recent years.

The Borg Queen: one of the creepiest and most menacing film villains of recent years.

With these important exceptions noted, science fiction films are overwhelmingly dystopian: the future is not only, like the past, a foreign country, it is a foreign country we don’t want to visit, and what gives the fantasy its edge is the fact that we know we will be thrust into the future, like it or not. Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, Rollerball, Strange Days, Artificial Intelligence: AI, Gattaca, Twelve Monkeys, The Omega Man, Silent Running, and the list goes on and on — all, in their various ways, are dystopias, visions of the future intended to inspire fear and dread. It is a challenge to attempt to name a science fiction film that does not portray a dystopia. Possibilities might include science fiction horror films like Alien and its sequels or Predator and its sequels, but these are not very inspiring either in terms of the vision they present.

In fact, the only unifying theme one could identify in this mass of science fiction films is that of dystopia. This in and of itself is a message. The future is to be feared, even if it is filled with wonders, even if its technology is indistinguishable from magic, even if the possibilities of life are dramatically expanded by future discoveries and opportunities.

The futurist architecture of Antonio Sant’Elia partly resembles the actual contemporary architecture of our time and partly resembles the fantasy architecture that forms the background of science fiction films and immersive computer game worlds.

The futurist architecture of Antonio Sant’Elia partly resembles the actual contemporary architecture of our time and partly resembles the fantasy architecture that forms the background of science fiction films and immersive computer game worlds.

Science fiction is not unlike a thought experiment, but whereas philosophers previously placed their thought experiments about the origins of our institutions in the inaccessibly distant past, the thought experiment that is science fiction places our institutions in the inaccessible future. More often than not, the evolution that these institutions undergo is not such as to recommend them. Moreover, I think there must be some kind of deep and inscrutable relationship between the failed predictions of techno-futurists, the fulfilled predictions of aesthetic futurists, and the dystopian vision of science fiction films. Science fiction films are, after all, the synthesis of aesthetic futurism and techno-futurism; they are, in a sense, the practice of futurism.

Given the failure of traditional eschatological regimes to satisfy the raised hopes and expectations of the masses that populate our industrialized societies, we may speculate that futurism and science fiction provide contemporary society in the industrialized world with some kind of eschatological connection. I say “connection” because we cannot call this dark vision an eschatological hope or consolation. However, this connection, such as it is, does provide the individual with a sense of his place in the whole by presenting a vision of the future, of history, and of destiny. The technical ecstasy of contemporary special effects that thrill us with Hollywood eye candy even as it spins a darker tale in the background draws us into that vision inexorably, and serves as a warning of things to come.

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I have written more on the themes of futurism and dystopia, especially in relation to their cinematic depiction, in Fear of the Future.

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I wrote more on the futurists (i.e., on aesthetic futurism) in A Hundred Years of Futurism.

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2 Responses to “Technical Ecstasy: Futurism and Dystopia”

  1. dasmb said

    I don’t know how to read.

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