Monday, October 13, 2014

The Stratified Future

Ralph McQuarrie matte painting of the desert and the void (1977); Skyscraper Index - up to 1974.
 Preparing for a talk at Whitman last week, a post on ello by @doingitwrong that mentioned the Skyscraper Index brought to mind a talk I gave a few years ago at Performa 11 in which I broke the visual language of the Star Wars "used future" down along lines of three stratified machine ages. I was looking for a way to explain to the students some of the things that I felt made the film so original, it occurred to me that while geeks love to play the gotcha game of spotting some imagery, predating Star Wars. That C3P0 is a copy of Fritz Lang's robot Maria, is an obvious example. The gist of the game is that Star Wars is derivative. But what the game misses is that C3P0 means something very different than Maria. If Lucas and his crew had attempted to build a stratified past for their futuristic world - something that had never been done on film before - it would have overwhelmed 70's audiences. What they did instead, was to appropriate an existing past: Yesterday's Tomorrows. 
As it turns out, a bit of bad luck turned out to be good luck. Sometime in the years since I gave the original talk, I had lost all 100 slides I'd prepared for that talk (a bad transfer of files at some point - total bummer), but remaking them, improved the talk. For the original talk I started with a skyscraper index, misappropriating it as an info-vis of world's tallest buildings. My premise was that these skyscrapers were, and are, the first fully modern  architecture - those, that in Rem Koolhaas' words, in which “the elevator meets the steel frame, able to support the newly discovered territories without itself taking up space.” But over time, how we imagine skyscrapers has shifted repeatedly, producing towers that not only look very different, but, again,  mean very differently.
Unaltered Index
The Marxist theorist Ernest Mandel - by way of Fredric Jameson - periodizes machine ages by the evolution of technology itself :
The fundamental revolutions in power technology-the technology of the production of motive machines by machines-thus appears as the determinant moment in revolutions of technology as a whole. Machine production of steam-driven motors since 1848; machine production of electric and combustion motors since the 90s of the 19th century; machine production of electronic and nuclear-powered apparatuses since the 40s of the 20th century--these are the three general revolutions in technology engendered by the capitalist mode of production since the "original" industrial revolution of the later 18th century.
I like Mandel's insight (and where Jameson took it), but perhaps because I am not looking to cap modernism, naming its final period, but instead am looking to identify the meaning of stylistic stratum - "fundamental revolutions" are little help. In fact, I think they obscure more important changes, the changes in the hopes moderns have for their futures.  
The Machine Ages of 1977 America
So rather than periodize machine ages by technological changes, I'd chosen to use the concept of  “fictitious capital”, the currency of what "the greatest living Trotskyist libertarian cyberpunk science-fiction humorist", Ken MacLeod, calls "the political economy of promise.” According to MacLeod, “The relationship between scientific-technological advance and science fiction has often been assumed and celebrated but seldom rigorously examined... the 'promise' of new technologies or scientific breakthroughs is used to mobilize resources – of labor, capital, research grants, political credibility, [and] public acceptance – in the real world.” 

MacLeod is describing science fiction's relationship to science, not real estate development, his concept nicely fits skyscrapers however: “Imaginary representations of promising developments play an integral part in this process, acting as (almost literally) 'fictitious capital' in the boom phase of an economic cycle.”

The first age is one that was not a part of the original talk. Because the skyscraper included tall buildings, made with technologies not too different from cathedrals, and because an important part of the modern world are its connections to the past, to the "folk art" and such of the not-yet-modernized. This is the world the Jawas and Tusken Raiders. 

The first age, of truly modern architecture, is one that has profound hold-overs from our aristocratic past. I called this machine age "Gothic", because these first skyscrapers were conceived as towers: intended to be gaze up at in wonder. Vader belongs to this world, as does Obi Wan Kenobi - they are aristocrats fighting duels by the old "honorable" rules, with elegant weapons, "for a more civilized age." 

The second group of true skyscrapers I called "Aerial", because their architects imagined them from the air, with airliners hanging above and tipped by dirigible mooring towers. The C3PO and Deco aesthetic of C3PO and landspeeder belong to this faded age. 
Space Age
The last group of towers are from the "Space Age". Hanging above these skyscrapers are rockets and moonlanders. This is the territory of the most advanced technology we see in Star Wars: The Star Destroyers, Tie Fighters and the Death Star - but at I worked on recreating my slide deck for for Whitman, I realized that the post war years are so important to scifi visual culture - a sort of Axial Age - that I was missing an opportunity to illuminate finer strata by naming those years one thing.

I ended up thin slicing the final machine age into four discrete Space ages: "War" - represented by the Pentagon (shown on edge, and janky,  but to scale), "Missile" - by The UN Secretariat Building, "Rocket" - by the Space Needle and Gateway Arch - and finally "Hyperspace" - represented by the, then, four tallest buildings in the world, all built between 1969 and 1914. Or, put another way, all completed between the time when Stanley Kubrick's scifi masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered, and George Lucas and his crew began work on his first Star Wars movie.
Space Ages
While the fictions hanging above the three earlier space ages were naive, and uninformed (think Forbidden Planet) - the fictitious capital that hung over America's greatest skyscraper boom was Kubrick's 2001. Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke worked to deliver a rigorously realistic vision of life in space to film audiences. But their Vision of Cold Warriors commandeering Pan Am flights to the moon crewed by beautiful young stewardesses was dated the moment it first appeared in theaters. As I explained in my talk:

2001 premiered April 2nd 1968, two months after the American military’s disastrous response to the Tet Offensive; one month after Walter Cronkite (who was recently described as “a reliable mouthpiece for the optimistic scenarios” of the US government) changed his position and broadcast an editorial predicting the war could only end in stalemate or “cosmic disaster. 

less then a month after the New York Times ran a piece entitled “The Second Feminist Wave” in which, Ti-Grace Atkinson compared marriage to slavery; and just 3 days after President Johnson announced he would not run for reelection - quietly ending the Great Society, and ushering in the reign of the Nixon Administration.

Two days after 2001 made its premier to an audience of Washington DC beltway insiders, Martin Luther King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee. The national mood that Kubrick had projected 33 years into the future had broken like a fever by April 13th 1968, just days after the film premiered, when the New Yorker Magazine published Penelope Gilliatt's review of 2001, in which she wrote:
There are no Negroes in this vision of America's space program; conversation with Russian scientists is brittle with mannerly terror, and the Chinese can still be dealt with only by pretending they're not there.
In the first few weeks of 2001’s run riots broke out in over 110 American cities. In DC alone, 13 people were killed in clashes with police and over 6000 arrests were made. By the time Lucas began work on Star Wars five years later the Kent State shootings in 1970 had further polarized and radicalized Americans. The OPEC nations had challenged the US presumption of superpower in 1973 with a successful oil embargo, Richard Nixon resigned in scandal on August 9, 1974 , and the capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese Army in April 1975 marked the end of the Vietnam war.
Rebel Space

While the Booms provided the legible imagery that made stratified future visible, it was that bust that is key to understanding what the visuals in Star Wars mean. I would call this last machine age "Rebel Space." In Lucas' own words: 
I started to work on Star Wars rather than continue on Apocalypse Now. I had worked on Apocalypse Now for about four years and I had very strong feelings about it. I wanted to do but could not get it off the ground... A lot of my interest in Apocalypse Now was carried over into Star Wars. I figured I couldn't make that film because it was about the Vietnam War, so I would essentially deal with some of the same interesting concepts that I was going to use and convert them into space fantasy, so you'd have essentially a large technological empire going after a small group of freedom fighters or human beings... a small independent country like North Vietnam threatened by a neighbor or provincial rebellion, instigated by gangsters aided by empire... The empire is like America ten years from now, after Nixonian gangsters assassinated the Emperor and were elevated to power in a rigged election; created civil disorder by instigating race riots aiding rebel groups and allowing the crime rate to rise to the point where a 'total control' police state was welcomed by the people. Then the people were exploited with high taxes, utility and transport costs" 
 Used Future

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