everything new is old again:
krokers find future, flounder, fail.

 
Digital Delirium
Arthur & Marilouise Kroker, eds.
(St. Martin's Press, 318 pages)
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digital delirium cover
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A backlash against computers and “computer culture” has been long overdue, though, typically, it’s too little and too late. Even the most adamant luddites would have to admit that the computer is here to stay, if not quite in the form we recognize now. 

Concordia University academics Arthur and Marilouise Kroker have written about computers and their effect on culture before, in books like Hacking the Future and Data Trash, and not without ambivalence. With Digital Delirium, however, they seem intent on upping the ante, enlisting a range of academics, cultural theorists, sci-fi writers and technologists to articulate a broad sense of unease about what seems an impending supersaturation of data and connectivity into the cultural, social, economic and physical fibre of our current reality and imminent future.

I, for one, wish the bet had paid off, but unfortunately, Digital Delirium is a confused rattle-bag of often barely articulate speculation and hard-ridden intellectual hobby horses that does little to explain any notion of “computer culture”, or a culture reliant on computing, that isn’t abstruse, obtuse, or banal. 

The contributions are organized into five sections, each of which is meant to elaborate on a facet or “concept” of “digital” culture. The Krokers lead off with a tour of San Francisco, a city they imagine as being on the fringe of empirical reality and the beginning of an alternate, silicon-coded empire of emerging economics and evolving new social structures. It’s hard to peer past the purple, hyperbolic prose and see anything but a typical First World city, struggling with its contradictions as lightning changes in economic structures exist alongside the old urban dilemmas of race and wealth distribution. 

We’ve always been trying to make sense of these seemingly intractable problems, and the solution the Krokers have arrived at - which Arthur Kroker first attempted in force with Data Trash - is to pile on the adjectives and tack on every cliche inspired by media rhetoric, in the hope that the momentum generated by so much allusion will hammer home an argument that relies more on inference than persuasive ideas. Listening to a group of street musicians riff on Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay”, “we know that we have mutated beyond music, and are present at a dirge, SF style: end of the continent, end of the road, end of the body, end of life, end of hope.  It’s just that moment when a song becomes a lament, and the city streets are a dance of the disposessed.”  Poetic, yes, and powerful in its invocation of apocalypse, but really nothing more than a moment’s musing on a street corner, in a city not your own. 

The Krokers have written, not surprisingly, on Beaudrillard and the French semioticians and cultural theorists of his circle. Digital Delirium contains both a short article by him and an interview with the “philosopher of signs”. With a short interview with fellow cultural theorist Paul Virilio separating the two, the Krokers seem to place the musings of Beaudrillard at a locus in the book, a point from which it all opens out. This is a shame, since while there is much in Digital Delirium that seems cogent and inspired, the Beaudrillard section is of typical opacity and tortuous verbal gymnastics: “And this is where the clockwork breaks down, because the absorption of all this, by the resonance of the sounding board on which it falls, as it is completely perturbed, falsified, mediatised, this anticipated absorption, through the precession of whatever you do, that is what distresses me.” Come again?

Beaudrillard is responding to a question about Susan Sontag’s theatre work in a war-ravaged Sarajevo, but obviously the very real circumstances of such work - the loaded critique of the whole political nightmare of Bosnia that staging “Waiting for Godot” in a war zone implies (in spite of what one may think of its appropriateness - might not real aid have been more welcome?) - means little to him. His “distress” is a highly-bred creature, more comfortable with raging at the shadows of meaning and the echoes of real problems.

There are some fine contributions to Digital Delirium. Sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling’s long essay, re-evaluating over ten years of both hype and progress since the birth of “cyberspace”, is sobering in its disillusioned assesment of our spiralling infatuation with “virtuality”, and ends with a call for a return to grappling with the grief and confusion of reality. 

It was probably a mistake to put an interview with Slovenian writer Slavoj Zizek immediately after Beaudrillard’s, as straightforward and commonsensical as Zizek sounds next to Beaudrillard's gnomic utterances. Reflecting on the popularity of nascent “virtual reality” in porn, Zizek points out that people have always used their imaginations to enhance the prosaic act of sex; of course they have, you think, 

Elsewhere, there are interesting pieces on the transmission of UFO mythology through popular culture, and the dynamics of the Godzilla film and an attendant Japanese obsession with the destruction/reconstruction of Tokyo.  The latter piece might be one of the few examples of the theory of deconstruction brought lightly into play in an elegant, discursive manner. Unfortunately, these are bright spots in a collection where the sum of the parts do not add up to a satisfying whole.

©1997, 2002 Rick McGinnis
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