September 06, 2005

Goodbye Robert Johnson, hello Robert Johnson Hotel and Casino Resort Complex


What could be clearer, as we watch New Orleans collapse, than that Jeter's world is ours?

The images of rotting urban infra- and social structure I wrote about a couple of days ago now find their correlates on the TV news, which increasingly resembles the most lurid of computer games. At the heartland of Jeter's version of cyberpunk are precisely the ex-urban spaces that some are predicting New Orleans will become. As Paul of the Boulder Anti-Apathy Cluster speculates in an excellent post: 'It's a terrifying notion to think about, but we must: the poor of New Orleans may have been deliberately dispossessed (and demonized as "looters") in order to make way for the rebuilding of New Orleans on the sterilized theme park terms of the rich. Goodbye Robert Johnson, hello Robert Johnson Hotel and Casino Resort Complex.' (Goodbye Robert Johnson, hello Robert Johnson Hotel.... The mess and stench of actual poverty must be photoshopped/ shipped out of the picture, to return as aestheticized decoration. In Jeter's LA, the rich adorn their luxury appartment blocks with Mumbling Junkie automata and mechanical rats.)

One reason that conspiracy theories don't cut it is that capitalism has terminated the long-term thinking which conspiracies depend upon. No more planning, only deliberate obsolescence, the improvised harnessing of natural disasters as a means of urban clearance. Everything is an opportunity. There's no catastrophe that can't be capitalized on.

Capital has an ambivalent relationship to the 'indeadted', the homo sacers which Global Capital both excludes and feeds upon. Or: global Capital imposes a state of constant ambivalence, sub-social interloping, hyper-precarity on whole populations that switch from exploitable labour to redundant ex-human resources at the click of a mouse. Dispossession as disconnection: and yet - and this is Jeter's riposte to all those Californian post-Marxist hymns to wired post-humanity - there is no connectedness without the disconnected. Disconnection is not so much exclusion as peripheralization, removal from the land of the living. In Noir you aren't even allowed to die if your debts aren't settled, and some of those most haunting scenes of the novel see the pathetically re-animated indeadted scouring through towers of toxic trash for the means of making someone else's living.


Every knows that 'our' indeabted - the black poor in America - are second-class citizens, or rather non-citizens. Everyone that is, apart from the Big Other, of course, and the rupturing of its ignorance accounts for the frission produced by Kanye West's now notorious traumatized outburst on TV. America's first response to any catastrophe, including those that afflict itself, is anodyne narrativization, the semiotic equivalent of the gloopy nutrient gel poured into the destroyed streets in Jeter's novel. Kanye's interruption of that drip feed of rousing/tranquillizing therapeutic babble - which, as Steven Shaviro summarises seeks to ‘explain’ how, even in the face of sadness and tragedy, life goes on and the USA continues to be the greatest nation on earth' - was the very definition of the inappropriate, and these are conditions in which, as Shaviro says, any fitting response to the media images will immediately be deemed 'hyperemotional'.

The innocynical sentimentality that Kanye disrupted is the hallmark of Late Capitalism, and this is where Jeter's novel strikes a false note. His 'villain', the DynaZauber executive, Harrisch, is a man devoid of all sentimentality, a corporaptor with unwavering reptillian eyes. Harrisch happily concedes that DZ is sublimely indifferent to any ethical constraints, its goal to reduce consumers to slavering junkie slaves. This makes him not only a somewhat unconvincing Sadean libertine but a man entirely without ideology. Ideology is always in part a rationalization, a justification, which presupposes the very discrepancy between motive and action that Harrisch's rapacity smooths over. Such clear-eyed, wanton exploitation is what Kant called radical evil. As Alenka Zupancic explains, radical evil 'refers, firstly, to the fact that our inclinations are the only determining causes of our actions and, secondly, to the fact that we have consented to our inclinations functioning as the only possible motives of our actions'. What makes this possible in Harrisch's case is the implausibly perfect convergence of his interests with those of the corporate monolith for whom he acts.

But is it conceivable, as Jeter's characterization of Harrisch suggests, that any corporate body, any social system, could actually present itself as radically Evil? It is no accident that no actual corporation has presented itself this way, particularly not now, where the most useless and destructive product cannot be retailed without spurious ethical benefits. It's tempting to say that even Nazism and Stalinism persuaded themselves that they were Good, but such a delusion, far from being a contingent, accidental feature of these regimes, was constitutive of the Evil they performed. The self-perception (self-deception) is structurally necesary. Self deception indeed: the role of ideology is not wielded by the rich and powerful to persuade others of their goodness. No: it is there to persuade them that their actions are noble.

Posted by mark at September 6, 2005 09:59 PM | TrackBack