The Infinite Sales Bay of the Universe

An essay by philosopher Amy Ireland. Text source here. Originally published in the exhibition catalogue for Andre Škufca’s Black Market, International Centre of Graphic Arts (MGLC), Ljubljana, 2020.

“You’re absolutely right. Our little town is a hole. Always was and always will be. Except right now,” I say, “it’s a hole into the future. And the stuff we fish out of this hole will change your whole stinking world. Life will be different, the way it should be, and no one will want for anything. That’s our hole for you. There’s knowledge pouring through this hole. And when we figure it out, we’ll make everyone rich, and we’ll fly to the stars, and we’ll go wherever we want. That’s the kind of hole we have here.”1

“I fear the unknown,” she had written, “but the fear of the known is so much worse. […] The known is slicked on to everything like a kind of grease. You would do anything to avoid the things you already know.”2

Driven back again, we retreated to the town. The post office and the supermarket reassembled themselves around us. Determined to prove his authority over this new time and space was the equal of mine, Stark led us behind the furniture store, where once again we lost ourselves within an endless terrain of furniture suites and kitchen units, archipelagos of appliance islands that stretched to the horizon, as if the contents of all the suburban homes on the planet had been laid out in the infinite sales bay of the universe.3

If creativity has anything to do with radical novelty, it is the enemy of knowability. Knowability compiles reality by sedimenting past experience into present-generating habits. A habit is a synthesis of experience that confirms a pattern. Its hallmark is predictability, the reflexive wager that things will unfold in a certain way given consistent parameters—that the universe is dependably ordered. The patterns of habit enable us to navigate our environment. They respond to the unconscious organisational weight of our perceptions, produce the expectations that give us traction on complex situations, and draw boundaries of intelligibility, which, depending on the specificities of the habit in question, can be as extensive or as claustrophobic as the operation of its synthesis. At their outermost limits, habits are fundamentally spatio-temporal operations—formed via deployment in the present of actualities extracted from the past, and, when anticipation is involved, an extrapolation of the past and the present it is instantiated in into the future. They are therefore backward-looking and their logic is a comfortably linear one in which past causes manifest present effects. Inside a habit, everything is ostensibly intelligible because something like it has happened before; its materials are limited to that which already exists.

Although they can be seen as a specifically human characteristic, habits—abstractly understood—are composed on all levels of being, inorganic and organic as well as psychological. A habit is, therefore, not just something imposed on an already organised notion of reality, it organises reality in every instant, gathering diverse, heterogenous elements together into a specific rhythm—a little piece of space-time. An object. A territory. A temporary fortification against the forces of the new. Viewed in this way, the human organism is a habit composed of habits: “We say we have a habit, but we all know that it is really the habit that has us. It is an automatism that has taken hold and inhabits us.”4

Habits may organise reality, but they are also inherently fragile—for there is always something that threatens to break them up, a weakness in security, a hole into the future. If they weren’t, nothing would change. The absolutely unknowable perpetually threatens to break habit, and the source of unknowability lies in the temporality of the future. True novelty is synonymous with the unprecedented, the unrecognisable, and the sometimes catastrophically unpredictable. It always involves some level of risk. Grasping novelty in this way itself requires the shedding of a habit: the human tendency to anthropomorphise agency. Freed from this tendency to ascribe its operation to unique, intentional human agents, creativity appears as an impersonal force belonging to time. It is paradoxically identifiable by its unrecognisability—by that which it disrupts being unable to anticipate it. Because it is coincident with the future, it is a characteristic of novelty that it arrives before any qualitative judgement can be levelled. If the new is moralised, it is only so in retrospect. Hence its inherent ambivalence—manifesting simultaneously as potential and as threat. Two kinds of forces in recent history serve to exemplify the amoral duplicity of the new: the forces of art and the forces of war.

Art tends to conceive of radical novelty as potential and in recent centuries it has explicitly oriented itself towards it as the foundation of originality. This tendency is retrospectively legible in the Romantic theorisation of the artistic “genius”, who produces “that for which no definite rule can be given”, and later in the Modernist figure of the iconoclast who, accompanied by the furious battle cries of “Make It New!” and “Épater la bourgeoisie!”, sets out to destroy all previous forms.5 The history of modern art reveals how quickly such productions become subsumed into the habitual, but they emerge, without exception, as ruptures in intelligibility. The structural relationship between radical novelty and knowability has a concise demonstration in an anecdote recounted by the philosopher Henri Bergson, who recalls how, in the midst of the First World War, at the crest of the inaugural wave of modernist innovation, he was asked the following question by a journalist hoping to extract from the famous thinker of time a forecast of artistic production: “How do you conceive, for example, the great dramatic work of the future?” “If I knew what was to be the great dramatic work of the future,” Bergson replied, “I should be writing it.” In Bergson’s account the source of radical novelty is strictly futural and intractable to anticipation—an “unforeseeable nothing which changes everything”.6 It thus takes the form of a positive onslaught against what is, waged under the banner of an objectively unknowable future potentiality.

In war it coincides with the militarisation of novelty fundamental to post-9/11 geopolitics, a form of asymmetrical warfare best captured in the negative by the now famous statement made in 2002 by US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, characterising the “war on terror” as a confrontation with “unknown unknowns”.7 Here it arises under the form of existential threat. Subject to the pressure of objective unknowability, the post-Second World War logic of prevention and subsequent Cold War logic of deterrence, both premised on the knowable (empirical causes that can be assessed and then acted upon to prevent the emergence of conditions favourable to war, and the certainty of annihilation, respectively) and a linear temporal relation between cause and effect, are swept away in the logic of pre-emption, a war against unknown and indeterminate potentialities that nevertheless threaten to realise themselves at any moment.8 In this situation, as in that of artistic novelty, it is the actual state of affairs (a concatenation of habitual syntheses) that is always at a structural disadvantage due to the erasure of the knowledge-conditions favourable to it. The state is no longer fighting a specific enemy of a precise nature, but unpredictability itself. Contemporary war policy compensates for the absence of an actualised cause with the production of effects, generating a climate of fear that would enable it to act with some semblance of justification. Its only defence is an attempt to subvert the threat of structurally unknowable future potentiality in the name of the present. Radical novelty, when figured as threat that must be guarded against. In an effort to retain control of the terrain, pre-emptive politics terraforms the world as recursive truth in a furious battle with the future, and the “war on terror” collapses into a war on time.

Thus, an obscure force of creation pulses through the conduits of artistic production and the agents of war—figuring radical novelty as an invasion from the future. Such breaks occur because, like experience itself, art and war are circumscribed for us by the habit that contains all habits: the spontaneous human expectation that time succeeds and space coexists—that effect follows cause, that travelling forward in space means travelling forward in time. What would it take to break this, the most fundamental of all habits?

One particular model from science fiction proposes an enthralling thesis. This is “the zone” trope first innovated by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in Roadside Picnic (a work that took considerable effort to push through Soviet censors), retransmitted by Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, M. John Harrison’s Nova Swing, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation and, most recently, Alex Garland’s film of the same name.9 These works speculate upon the appearance of a sudden, monumental, unexplained disturbance in anthropomorphic space-time known only (for conceptuality too is clearly unable to assimilate it) as “the Zone”, “the event site”, “Area X” or “the Shimmer”. Inside the zone, a—sometimes fatal—unpredictability reigns. Space and time no longer function following previously intelligible laws; “[s]cale and perspective [are] impossible to achieve”.10 Maps are made but they rarely prove useful, if not downright deceptive: “You’re saying we get out by going deeper in?” confirms the physicist in Garland’s Annihilation.11Roadside Picnic’s zone seems invulnerable to entropy, while decay sets in unnervingly quickly in VanderMeer’s Area X. Compasses and watches are ineffectual. Gravity is fractious. Radio waves, light waves, and genetic information partake in an opaque commerce under a strange logic of transversal refraction. The environment changes suddenly and inexplicably, and cause-effect relations are indecipherable if they even apply at all: “You can’t get change less ordered,” remarks Ascheman, a specialist detective in the Saudade Site Crime unit, to professional stalker and erstwhile site criminal, Vic Serotonin, in Nova Swing. “Look at it, so raw and meaningless! The wrong physics, they say, loose in the universe. Do you understand that? I don’t.”12 “What’s there to understand? It’s the Zone …” sighs Roadside Picnic’s protagonist, Red Schuhart, upon learning that the Zone has killed his accomplice and friend, Kirill. “The Zone doesn’t give a damn who the good guys and the bad guys are.”13 Like its physics, moral value in the zone isn’t party to any human order.

In each of these texts, traffic into and out of the zone is monitored, policed and incompetently regulated by a local military apparatus. Its prime targets are the stalkers—social outcasts of some kind or another—who harbour an enigmatic attraction to the area. Risking their lives every time they cross the border, the stalkers survive by smuggling unintelligible artefacts back to the ordinary world and selling them to dealers in contraband wares, or by offering their services to tourists, who, for similarly arcane reasons, find themselves ensorcelled by the zone’s strange allure. In VanderMeer and Garland’s Annihilation, the figure of the stalker is replaced by the participants of a series of secretive, experimental military expeditions: men and women deployed into the zone by a dysfunctional and authoritarian martial organisation known as the “Southern Reach”. In both the trilogy and the film, the first ten expeditions are deemed failures, tallying a collective survivor count of zero. It is only with the eleventh and twelfth expeditions that someone makes it back alive, which is not to say intact. So why go there at all? What is shared by all the figures who find themselves drawn to the zone—the stalkers, the soldiers, the entradistas, the travel agents and their clientele—is a desire to exit the known. They are searching for the very thing that breaks up habit (the source of their automatisms) and an indefinable dissolution synonymous with a loss of the thing that sustains human habit—the self. Memory ceases to function and names evaporate in the zone. Those who enter it end up becoming something else, subject to invasion by exterior forces—it “tries to colonise you”.14 “You want to know what it’s like in there?” seasoned stalker Emil Bonaventura asks his protégé in Nova Swing. “The fact is, you spend all those years trying to make something of it. Then guess what, it starts making something of you.”15 In its disruption of worldly apparatuses of authority (the police, the military, those who would regulate the trade that springs up spontaneously at its edges), of any sense of pattern, of the obstinate linearity of cause and effect, of spatial simultaneity and temporal succession, and of what we humans would like to think of as the eternally applicable salience of “good” and “evil”, the zone is the opposite of a habit. It is an anti-territory, something that can only be ascribed to some inscrutable alien agent—a prismatic externality—and to the kind of madness that Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh describes as “a giving-way and giving-over of the individual self to an external force […] the subordination of subjective identity to something else that demands things from the outside-going-inside”.16

J. G. Ballard—who should also be named among the great writers of this trope, especially in his transitional 1979 novel The Unlimited Dream Company, where he figures suburban Shepperton, known for its production companies and film studios, as a hallucinogenic, omnisexual, junglised double of the “real” thing, fringed by an invisible boundary with infinitely receding horizons—configures the agential directionality of the zone a little differently to the writers mentioned above. For Ballard, the zone is primarily a psychic artefact. Its staging is theatrical, interior, framed by the proscenium of the self, yet no less a production of exterior, inorganic forces than the geographical anomalies of the Zone, the event site, Area X, or the Shimmer. This insistence on an interior—one could say “immobile”—voyage functions as a critique of classical science fiction’s preoccupation with outer space, and as a gateway or a portal to the source of all anti-territories—a virtuality where time and space themselves are forged.

After crashing the Cessna he has just stolen from nearby Heathrow Airport into the Thames, the protagonist, Blake, clambers onto the Shepperton riverbank—much to the surprise of the town’s onlookers, who receive him with incredulity before accepting his emergence, unscathed, from the wreckage, as a mark of the messianism he finds himself inhabiting with increasing schizophrenic zeal. As the banal, everyday goings-on of the town are plunged deeper and deeper into a dream world of restless conjugations overgrown with alien flora and populated with exotic birds, Blake’s convictions concerning the reality of this new Shepperton are only strengthened—an ontological affirmation whose intensity grows in equal proportion to the suspicion that he is, in fact, empirically dead. Empirically dead, but—finally—real. Blake exists in a state that is both at once, where “by an undeniable logic black simultaneously becomes white”, a state that knows nothing of the laws of identity, non-contradiction, or the excluded middle.17 A state, as Ballard affirms in an interview given to The Woman Journalist Magazine in 1963, that resembles the condition of dreams: these “dream worlds, synthetic landscapes […] are external equivalents of the inner world of the psyche”.18 Their temporal schema are consummately non-linear (“this zone I think of as ‘inner space’, the internal landscape of tomorrow that is a transmuted image of the past”, pregnant with idiosyncratic symbolism—“time-sculptures of terrifying ambiguity”) and everything is available here because nothing yet belongs to habit.19

Proliferating connections; copulating with the wind, the birds, the deer, and the people of Shepperton, young and old, male and female; seeding an entire tropical ecosystem by ejaculating onto the arid, pounded earth of a tennis court, a car park, petrol pumps, furniture displays, and commandeering each of the elements in turn, what Ballard’s Blake reveals, to paraphrase Robin Mackay, is the “virtual structure of desire underlying normative cultural perception”, begotten—and this is the lesson of the zone as a motif for the machinations of spatio-temporal rupture effectuated in art and war—by catastrophe.20 A break that shatters habit and, in the brief interim before novel habits are sedimented, opens a space for all new connections to flourish, outside of time and space, prior to the judgements that would render them “good” or “evil”, before anyone or anything has become accustomed to them. “Perhaps in moments of extreme crisis,” Blake speculates, “we [step] outside the planes of everyday time and space and [are] able to catch a glimpse of all events that had ever occurred in both past and future.”21 This break—if it does not actually instantiate it—, mimics death. And Blake of course discovers in the end that the corpse in the river is indeed his own, still strapped into the cockpit of the Cessna. In The Unlimited Dream Company’s penultimate scene, the townspeople of Shepperton erect a series of monuments to Blake’s reconfiguration of their reality from the objects of the market—“[o]utside the supermarket they arranged a pyramid of detergent packs and assembled a miniature tabernacle from the washing-machines and television sets […] building little temples of oil cans in the filling-station forecourt, pyramids of transistor radios outside the appliance stores, deodorant aerosols in the entrance to the chemists”—to replace the Shepperton church—pews removed, windows shattered, spire split in two—a tribute to cosmic libido.22

Every habit has its zone. A hole into the future that undoes habit and produces something radically new. The real black market—the infinite sales bay of the universe—is a market without objects or individuals. A fluid continuum, an outside which generates objects, habits, and identities just as swiftly as it breaks them up. It is not the artist who ruptures art, or the warrior who declares war, but something prior to both. A real that forever dreams the unreal in which art and war will claim their victories or count their irreparable losses.

NOTES:

1 STRUGATSKY, Arkady and Boris, Roadside Picnic, London: Gollancz, 2012, p. 42.

2 HARRISON, John M., Nova Swing, London: Gollancz, 2006, p. 84.

3 BALLARD, J. G., The Unlimited Dream Company, New York: Liverlight, 2013, p. 199.

4 MASSUMI, Brian, Ontopower: War, Powers and the State of Perception, Durham: Duke UP, 2015, p. 64.

5 KANT, Immanuel, Critique of Judgement, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, §46: p. 308. The idea that art must “shock the bourgeoisie” originated with the decadent poets of the late nineteenth century, while “Make it New!”, often attributed to Ezra Pound, came to be known as the rallying cry of the early modernists.

6 BERGSON, Henri, “The Possible and the Real”, in: The Creative Mind, New York: Dover, 2012, p. 81.

7 RUMSFELD, Donald, US Department of Defence News Briefing, 12/02/2002, http://archive.defense.gov/Transcripts/Transcript.aspx?TranscriptID=2636.

8 MASSUMI, Ontopower. Massumi’s thesis in this book is that radical creativity is a confrontation that takes place between what is and what is yet-to-come, a confrontation that also makes that which is confronted more creative, but not in the sense of producing the radically new—for its creativity is confined to actuality.

9 STRUGATSKY, Roadside Picnic; TARKOVSKY, Andrei (dir.), Stalker, Moscow: Dom Kino, 1979; BALLARD, The Unlimited Dream Company; HARRISON, Nova Swing; VANDERMEER, Jeff, Annihilation, London: Fourth Estate, 2014; GARLAND, Alex (dir.), Annihilation, US and China: Paramount Pictures & International: Netflix, 2018. Big thanks to @cockydooody, a voracious reader of science fiction, who catalysed this line of thought.

10 HARRISON, Nova Swing, p. 163.

11 GARLAND, Annihilation.

12 HARRISON, Nova Swing, p. 44.

13 STRUGATSKY, Roadside Picnic, pp. 51, 25.

14 VANDERMEER, Annihilation, p. 6.

15 HARRISON, Nova Swing, p. 11.

16 MOHAGHEGH, Jason Bahbak, Night: A Philosophy of the After-Dark, Alresford: Zero Books, 2019, p. 47.

17 BALLARD, J. G., “Time, Memory and Inner Space”, in: The Woman Journalist Magazine, 1963, https://www.jgballard.ca/non_fiction/jgb_time_memory_innerspace.html.

18 Ibid.

19 BALLARD, “Time, Memory and Inner Space”.

20 MACKAY, Robin, Geopoetics, seminar, Goldsmiths, 2018 (from notes by Matt Colquhoun).

21 BALLARD, The Unlimited Dream Company, p. 38.

22 Ibid., p. 178.

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