27 May 2011

Records on Ribs: A Machine of Loving Grace?

Posted by Dave at 9:52 pm

A while back I wrote a lengthy post at nomadic utopianism about hypnaogic pop, cyberpunk and utopia (I noted in the ‘get out clauses’ at the bottom that I’d rather shamefully failed to work Records on Ribs into my discussion, and reading it back now it seems strangely pessimistic- coloured by a more paternal Marxist bent than I would generally subscribe to, powerful though such arguments are). Anyway, I’m reminded of this because Rick Poynor’s post on Adam Curtis’ latest BBC documentary, ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’ (which is named after the poem below- image from Poynor- and which I’ve shamefully not yet seen)  joined up the dots for me between cyberpunk and the prefigurative utopianism of Records on Ribs which I discussed in today’s earlier blog post.

Of particular note in Poynor’s dissemination of Curtis’ documentary is the idea that the cybernetic dream of utopia- of a ‘cybernetic ecology’ is over. This seems to run contrary to the claims I made in yesterday’s post about seeing Records on Ribs as a prefigurative utopian space, but I think we have to acknowledge that the web- whilst it might provide the model- does not provide all the means. Building a society beyond capitalism will mean far more than sharing stuff online: the basic substances of existence- food, shelter, clothing-  cannot be downloaded, no matter how fast your modem. We cannot pretend that Records on Ribs constitutes an adequate offering to the struggle. It is relatively easy to create communist spaces online; far less so in the physical world.

But we do not believe that we should abandon decentralised, nonhierarchical, self-organising modes of being. Whilst there is a similarity with much neoliberal thought (Hayek’s concept of catallaxy, for example, or even ‘The Big Society’), and whilst neoliberalism has co-opted this rhetoric, the world we live in fails to deliver on the promise of anarchistic cyberneticism because it is a system which is founded upon- and which perpetuates- inequality. Where there is inequality there is also hierarchy and where there is hierarchy there cannot be immanent self-organisation. Money buys access and control, and forms which threaten neoliberalism’s total domination are destroyed or co-opted. Where there is hegemony and police brutality there is not genuine, immanent, self-organisation. The system does everything it can to head off change. It might be internally dynamic (though even this is questionable), but it refuses to go beyond itself.

It’s time to wrestle back nonhierarchy and self-organisation from capitalism and to liberate it in the name of communism; in the name of commonly owned property. It’s not time to retreat from the utopian dream that networks and nonhierarchical organisation promise us.

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
by Richard Brautigan

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pins and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.