08 October 2015

If I Ran the Fashion World, People Would Probably Not Let Me Run the Fashion World

Here's my idea of fashion - Data Chic. As I defined it in a hazy-headed 4chan post on /fa/:

Data Chic: Beauty is semantic and linked. Aestheticism is determined by meaning; the visual representation of data as art and its integration with existing traditional methods of meaning-making, such as a cheongsam.

Permutations of a Data Chic pattern (QR Code) applied to Cheongsam:

Reminds me of houndstooth, only more meaningful (to me). But that's to be expected, as I am utterly lost in the world of fashion; it makes total sense that I'd try to forge ahead by trying to do something which seems meaningful to me. Result: probable disaster. Yet I am strangely attracted by the concept nonetheless. Certainly there are others that could do it better.

Chances are this will make it into a cyberpunk fiction of mine, although I already had one iteration of fashion that I thought worked really well in that milieu - Office Krieg. Office Krieg is, in my mind's eye, a sort of punk appropriation of totalitarian military (specifically 1930's and '40s Wermacht and Soviet) orthography to traditional office wear - as appropriate for any future where one's affiliation with a mega-zaibatsu is one's livelihood AND de-facto nationality, and intra/inter-office warfare is not always a metaphorical term. Typified by a woman in one of my short stories who dressed in a tight black leather skirt worn just above the knees, white dress blouse with a military cut, lapels and chest pockets, knee-high jack boots, and no jewelry other than perhaps a black wristwatch and black metal stud earrings.

Apparently in my worlds, everything is black and white! Of course that need not be; imagine the above cheongsams in any shade you like, and of course Office Krieg, while more limited by its heritage, is to be found in all the shades of the office (white, black, gray, heather, navy) and field (charcoal, taupe, khaki, tan, forest green).

The only thing left is to flesh out the sorts that would wear such things, and the world that would compel them to.

14 September 2015

What is Cyberpunk to Me (Now)?

I've recently been on a Cyberpunk upswing. Gibson created the genre in the late 80s, at the dawn of the information age. He was prescient, but not perfect. Stuff's changed, even if it tries to remain the same. And how cyberpunk tries. My two most recent in-genre love affairs are computer games: Satellite Reign and Brigador. Both of them cling to the neon, rain soaked, industrio-gothic aesthetic of the ur-titles in the visual realm of the genre (Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Johnny Mnemonic, Hackers, et al).

These titles are in no way unique; others have done the same before. I've played the Deus Ex series, the Cyberstorm games (although that series is nigh-contemporaneous with some of the founding visual assets, I suppose), Hard Reset, Neotokyo. 

But that's not necessarily the way it has to be. There are other titles that, interestingly to me now that I stop to think on it, I've eschewed, which could nonetheless comfortably be labeled cyberpunk based on their themes and settings: Watchdogs, E.Y.E. Divine Cybermancy, Uplink, Hacker Evolution, just to focus on games and ignore film and television for the moment. All of these titles to various degrees do not slavishly follow the genre art tropes, while excellently (by all accounts) executing the themes and settings which make them cyberpunk at heart, if not on the surface. So why don't they attract me? Some of it pretty much has to be nostalgia, I think. But the art has a message, too, and that's important to me. The world I live in is essentially some kind of cyberpunk lite, near as I can tell - there are certainly huge networks layered on top of physical reality which dictate much of our lives invisibly, serving as electronic metaphors for the cabals and secret organizations which run them and run through them. Cyberwarfare is a thing. Virtual realities are a thing. Dreary, rain-soaked neon corridors are definitely a thing if the weather's right. By and large, however, the world doesn't feel cyberpunk. It doesn't have the same gothic, the same unceasing dim flicker and sparking neon baroque. Those art tropes communicate density; a closeness and claustrophobia which seemed very much a possible future back during the completely unabated population growth of the late 20th century when the genre was born. Yet despite a mildly diminished outlook on world population growth, the feel still seems right. I think the art also codes for a different kind of density: information density. 

That doesn't require much definition, does it? Cyberpunk, as much as it is about dystopian futures with massive overpopulation, rampant destruction of the ecosystem, the rise of sprawling megacities overflowing with crime and filth, and generally the characterization of humankind as a sort of bacterial infection gone disgustingly out of control (see: The Matrix), is also about the pressing (oppressing?) density of information:
  • omnipresent surveillance states
  • omnipresent information networks
  • layered realities (virtual reality; actual physical layers of megacities defining the vast distances between upper and lower castes, a proliferation of cultural and social constructs instead of a monoculture, etc)
  • layered selves (virtual avatars, mind uploading, sockpuppeting physical bodies, robot bodies, etc)
  • information overload
  • gnostic, hermetic knowledge structures (hacking as an esoteric skill, government plots, secret societies, demigod AI, conspiracies, etc)
Art direction that visually communicates that deep, layered - encrusted and barnacled, even - sense of setting is a welcome thing, then. It is another avenue for communicating the kind of reality in which a cyberpunk narrative takes place. And I think insofar as that narrative's relationship to our actual reality goes, it is that artistic correspondence of information density which most engages with us as readers/watchers/players today - at least moreso than the sort of Malthusian prophetics of the 80s do. Whether it's still proper for art to attempt to convey that sensibility with protagonists strapped into full leather, shifting from shadow to sodium lamp-defined shadow, eking their convoluted way through an electronic distortion of present-day realpolitik, War-on-Drugs era street crime, and late 90s industrial-punk-harajuku fashion is another question (but sort of a meaningless one, as these tropes still engage the audience as intended, even as much of the audience becomes a generation not yet born during the heyday of those cultural signals). 

Sidebar - Deus Ex: Human Revolution doesn't get a lot of credit for this (considering its best aspects lay perhaps elsewhere), but one of the interesting things that game did, sort of presaged in Niel Stephenson's Diamond Age, was attempt to redefine at least the fashion sense of cyberpunk. Where Diamond Age tried to show a caste of folks living as neo-Victorians, Human Revolution posited a kind of neo-Renaissance aesthetic - attempting, no doubt, to draw comparisons between the dawn of Reason in Western Civilization and the posited sea-change of that game's narrative. I don't think it quite worked for either Stephenson or Square-Enix, but it's not like it exactly didn't work. The fact they at least tried is important and interesting to me.
Whew, that was a long sentence. But that's sort of the point: once you're past the feeling that "old" art direction still somehow communicates the modern version of cyberpunk quite well, the question becomes "to what end?" If I can agree with myself that there is a coherent vision of the genre anno 2015, then what is that genre's message now? It seems logical to me that a coherent vision entails a coherent voice, or at least one strong trope that is reflecting a reality about our world. If the original cyberpunk as envisioned by Dick, Stephenson, Gibson, and the rest of that cadre was something about the nearness of the future, the rise of the information age, the uncertainty of the self and what it means to be human, and the disgusting, inevitable decay of the corporation-state - in short, basically the high-tech version of a po-mo takedown of Western Civilization, what's different now?

I think time has pared back some of that initial, really rather reactionary stuff. Because it's more or less actually already happened, we aren't worrying so much about the nearness of the future. Gibson himself has since said (one of my favorite quotes, if you haven't already read some of my other blog posts): "the future is already here, it's just not widely distributed yet." We aren't perturbed by the information superhighway; it's part of our lives now. We saw in 2008 that the (to use a more neutral term) evolution of the corporation-state is basically underway, and we predictably took sides as to whether that was a good thing or not. But all that's past, and Postmodernism's given way to the stochastic establishment of a mono-reality in which we all pragmatically must coexist. SCIENCE! etc. What we are left with is the ancient question of how to define the self and humanity, and associated questions. The mission of the genre, if you will, seems clearer and more focused on a question that is "timeless" - but its unique ability to do so remains  seated in its setting; its sense of information density. And I think that it is actually continuing the attack it began on Western Civilization, just via another route.

Instead of attacking the cracks in the (mostly imagined) monoculture of Western Civilization, as the po-mos did, the new cyberpunk attacks the teleology of Western Civ. If enlightenment, rationalism, and humanist futures are the aim of our culture at its best, then Cyberpunk counters it with a still-too-real imagining of a future that is dense beyond comprehension; too complex for our understanding, and totally out of the control of rational (to us, at least) beings. Whether its initial demagogues agree or its current torch-bearers had this in mind when they began their stories, the collective effect seems to be to place Mysticism squarely back into the human narrative of what is to come.

  • Omnipresent surveillance imbues human-made cityscapes with an animist sense of agency in all things.
  • Omnipresent information networks imbue those same 'scapes with animist, ley-line-esque magical properties - magical because hidden from plain sight.
  • Layered reality reinstates dualism, the supernatural.
  • Layered selves reinstates reincarnation; astral projection, etc.
  • Information overload places characters firmly into a universe based on the basic premise that not all which occurs can be understood by mere mortals.
  • Gnostic, hermetic knowledge hardly needs an introduction, but it too supplies more religious veneer to all of the above, and it again separates the known from the unknown, fundamentally questioning the ability of rational inquiry to penetrate the veil because now the veil is basically protected by agents beyond ones' understanding.
Personally, I love this. I think that this is exactly the kind of critique of our science-infatuated culture that is needed right now. The logical encrustation of high technology civilization upon itself makes it top-heavy; the very things we counted on to render our future readable make it recondite. Science is tipped on its head and we realize that it is without teleology; it is merely a tool. Our aims, though furthered by science, are not simply science - otherwise you turn science and technology into a religion, and it defeats itself. As well, as a person who likes history and is religious himself, this kind of mystic future is one which jives with what I know and expect of humanity, and which seems more like to accurately represent us, and the stories we like to tell about ourselves. As I've already begun to talk about in other posts here, the stories we like to tell about ourselves are actually important; to a greater than usually recognized degree, we are our stories.

05 May 2015

Returning to the Concept of Narrative Morality - Briefly

The picture is cropped, focused, sized,
and tells a story - but what happens next?
Narrative is a form of linguistic expression that tells a story. It really is this basic. It need not be constrained by the mores of chronology, or the strictures of a particular point of view, tense, tone, setting, or any other thing. Narrative, however, IS about change. There is a beginning, and there are points in the narrative which come after the beginning, and there will be an end of one sort or another.

Narrative's purpose is to be told - whether to oneself, or to others, or to some undefined audience which may or may not include various listeners and authors. And a narrative remains untold until it is finished; it is an inherent frustration of this linguistic format to leave a narrative unfinished, untold. This does not necessitate a climax or denoument, or any other "standard" narrative format for the end of a story, but rather so long as there exists the possibility for the narrative to continue, there is some unfinished aspect to the character of the narrative - and to some extent, this is an aspect of narrative common to all stories. Wherever an author or authors might think to end their story, whether by design (here's the conclusion, etc.) or accident (the author died before the work was completed, etc.), the audience may well ask "what next?" and it is an intelligible, reasonable question to ask of the story so long as a continuation can be imagined and articulated. Narrative, it seems, cannot fulfill its own purpose.

So narrative is linear in format if not in content, restrained in this way as are all things bound by the rules of our four-dimensional existence. Through that sequence, the presence of change makes the transition from one part of the sequence to another intelligible by allowing differentiation. Narrative also has a purpose - that of being told - and by its nature it seems that purpose cannot be completely fulfilled. Even from these basics the morality of narrative seems to arise for me: It is imperative (good) that the narrative be told, but it is to be understood that its telling will never be complete. Striving for completion is not necessarily bad insofar as it does not impede the good (which right now is just the imperative of actually telling the story), but it is also essentially nonsensical. And there are other, even more elemental goods that arise: change is good. We cannot at this point say how much change is good, but that it exists is good within the framework of a narrative; it is existentially good because it allows the narrative to be told, splitting up an indistinguishable linear experience into segmented, differentiated parts with relationships to one another (at the bare minimum, the relationship of being included in the same narrative by their author or authors).

The knowledge of these goods sheds light on another facet of narrative that, it quickly becomes apparent, is necessary to the good of the narrative by virtue of its effect on the purpose and change of a narrative: the narrative focus. Like change, linearity, purpose, and incompleteness, focus is a fundamental aspect of any narrative. It arises from the nature of language: without going too far afield into linguistics as opposed to narratology (which is the proper topic of this screed), a word spoken is also every other word not spoken. Language, the substrate of Narrative, is inherently focusing. Narrative focus cleaves that which is part of the narrative from what which is not part of the narrative - that which will be told, and that which will not be told. It is not a clean delineation: from what a narrative explicitly includes, an audience may deduce the probable existence of some aspects of the narrative not explicitly told (the plot of a mystery depends on this principle, for example). This ragged limn is the happy playground of the close reader. But at some indefinite point there would seem to be a limit to the determinations that can be made from a finite narrative, and this limit is helpful to the telling of a narrative because it limits what the author must complete in order to approach (but, remember, never quite attain) completeness. Focus is a good insofar as it aids the completion of the narrative; it would seem that it is possible for focus to also be a bad thing - too much of it, and we lose all sense of meaningful change. Like change, then, focus is good, but it remains unseen how much focus is a good thing. Probably, change and focus - and their proper amounts - maintain a delicate yin and yang (possibly also forming a tripod with linearity, in that too little time spent on a narrative - or too much - compresses or dilutes the focus and change contained within its limits?), and it is this good tao which is so ineffable and indispensable to a "good" narrative. But this is not an investigation into the proper qualities of good narratives. It is a simpler task taken up here; to simply identify what is fundamentally imperative (good) for narratives. A narrative without focus is everything, which is an unchanging totality. It is not a narrative. Focus is imperative to narrative, and good.

For a narrative, being told is the purpose, and therefore good. Its focus, its changes, its linear duration - these are the fundamental aspects of a narrative which are imperative for its telling, and therefore their existence is also good. If one were to derive one's own morality from the morality of narratives at this point, it would not be so hard to make a start:
  1. It is good to tell the narrative --> it is good to act, to live life, to exist, as opposed to inaction and non-existence.
  2. Acting, living life, existing: these are accomplished by focusing, by changing, by enduring - though to what degree one must do these things is somewhat unclear.  
  3. It is impossible to complete - to do all the good there is to do. 
Obviously, this appears extremely general. It is the most vapid seed of a morality, almost totally undefined, but it also seems like it could be used as a general compass rose for a more complete map of human morality as derived from our favorite form of expression, the narrative. The fleshing out of this correspondence and its implications for our own moral understanding does not seem impossible, or even improbable. The foothold has been crossed, and ground found upon which to stand. It might even be a good and useful project; it seems like there could be a lot of use for a morality derived from the morality of the Narrative. These problems are not the issue. 

The issue seems to be that Narrative's morality must be justified. Why is narrative so important to us? What does it do for us? These appear to be linguistic and cognitive questions, digging into Narrative's rich human substrate.

06 January 2015

My Child's Protolanguage

This is more of a documentary post than anything, though it might be interesting tidbits for those of us who - like Emily and I - are interested in language. Our new child, Joseph (our first), is
approximately four months old at the time of this writing. We have discovered that he has several utterances/vocalizations which recur pretty exactly, according to a formula. These sounds do also seem to correspond very strongly to different kinds of emotional states and/or stimuli Joseph encounters. A brief catalog, spelled phonetically:

"Ghee" - Used to express probable worry, concern.

"Naing" - Used in the throes of a tantrum. Appears to express extreme dissatisfaction.

"Agoo" - Somewhat more mysterious. Seems to imply pleasant surprise? The first of these three to appear.

I will add more later, so this will be something of an ongoing effort to catalog all his "words" before he begins to make real ones.

Sidenote: the meaning of these phrases was of course determined by Emily and I prior to Joseph's actually being able to articulate what he feels they signify. In the absence of a sufficiently robust theory of universal grammar, we may suppose that these are somewhat unique to this baby, though perhaps they share similarities with other babies of English-speaking couples in the 21st century. Nevertheless, the strong correlation with visible external states (crying, smiling, etc) seems to imply that we cannot be far off in guessing the import of these sounds. Considering the remarkable simplicity and ease of use inherent in these sounds (probably not full symbols - they are direct results of mental states, not communications thereof), it would behoove a science fiction author and worldbuilder to do research at some point into what extent such directness can be found in natural/synthetic languages.