Category Archives: FUTURE NOTES

YVONNE HOWELL – Apocalyptic Realism The Science Fiction of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky


Yvonne Howell    Apocalyptic Realism The Science Fiction of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky 

New York, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt/M., Paris, Wien, 1994. X, 170 pp.
Russian and East European Studies in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Culture. Vol. 1 General Editor: Willis Truitt 

Book Synopsis:

The brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky have been Russia’s most popular science fiction writers since their first publication appeared in 1959. The enormous and consistent popularity of their works over three decades of fluctuating political and literary conditions is all the more interesting when one considers that their primary readership has been the Russian scientific-technical intelligentsia – a sector of society whose values
and attitudes were instrumental in transforming the Soviet Union. This lively and original study of the Strugatskys’ development as writers and as spokesmen for a generation of Russian scientists is as timely as it is unique. It is also the first English language study of the Strugatskys’ previously unpublished novels. 

The Author: 

Yvonne Howell is an assistant professor of Russian at the University of Richmond. After graduating from Dartmouth College with a double concentration in Russian language and biology in 1981, she spent a year doing field work and studying zoology at Leningrad State University. Her doctoral degree is in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of Michigan. She travels to Russia regularly for teaching and research purposes.


Yvonne Howell’s study is structured into four chapters: Apocalyptic Realism, False Prophets, Apocalyptic Settings and Aliens of Our Time. Howell describes general aspects and some of the literary and philosophical driving forces behind the brother’s work. She not only introduces major theme complexes surrounding the novels, the study constantly relates to a Soviet and Russian collective mental realm. Howell makes the convincing argument that the Strugatskys engaged in a constant feedback loop between SF storylines and contemporary daily lives in the Soviet Union. In other words, the novels mirror elements of culture, political and other real life occurrences and tendencies. Howell describes the Strugatskys’ textual tree in its entirety, with the roots taping into a rich East-Western literary heritage.  

The Strugatskys take inspiration from strong source texts such as the biblical Revelations or mythological tales which they then sophistically adapt, transform and interweave into their SF stories. In her postscript, Howell writes ‘In any case, it seems likely that the Strugatskys’ science fiction will gain new relevance as science history-as a portrait of the intellectual, inter-personal, political, linguistic, and mundane concerns which formed the fabric of scientific culture in the Soviet Union.’ (p. 153)

I chose the following extracts with a couple of thoughts in mind. They show the generosity and precision of Howell’s approach to literary criticism, as the passages include extended reflections on Soviet – and Western – culture at large. The passages mention a cultural subconscious sphere, which acts as fundament and support structure for the brothers literary endeavour. In Apocalyptic Realism, you read about the Strugatskys, but you will also gain additional, deep, interdisciplinary knowledge. Howells writing and reasoning is insightful, lucid even. Images by Hieronymus Bosch and Sandro Botticelli. Some highlighting in blue by myself.  MG


Towards the end of his life, the Russian philosopher and religious thinker Nikolai Berdyaev summed up the essence of the Russian national character, as he perceived it, in a book called The Russian Idea (1946). He stated that Russians are either apocalyptiscists or nihilists; thus, the ‘Russian Idea’ is eschatological; it is oriented towards the end, and it is this which accounts for Russian maximalism. Such generalisations are important insofar as they reflect a society’s mythical perception of itself – often transformed into a self-fulfilling prophesy. At least since the time of Peter I, Russian intellectuals have been occupied with defining their national identity in a land which occupies the crossroads of East and West, the old and the new, anarchy and authoritarianism, Orthodoxy and scientism. The binary oppositions by which Russia defines itself have always had a decidedly religious character – depending on one’s orientation, one pole of any given opposition is equated with the antichrist, the other with universal salvation. (For example, Peter ‘the great’s’ decision to open up Russia to the West convinced his opposition that the reign of the antichrist had arrived; just as many today associate Russia’s transition to a market economy with swerving from the road of Orthodoxy and salvation). Accordingly, the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 was perceived as the final confrontation in history between all oppositions; and Marxist-Leninism, no less than any overtly religious movement, promised the dawn of a utopian new age of universal brotherhood (communism in the ‘radiant future’). The importance of the ‘Russian Idea’ (extremist and eschatological) to contemporary Russian literature, even when the Revolution’s millenarian claims have long since become the punch line of sardonic jokes, is that it continues to survive and influence scientific, religious, and political culture. (p.16-17)

The most basic underlying structure of all the Strugatskys’ mature works is described by two axes suggested in the generalisations above, and the hypothetical axes take as their zero point the sociopolitical event of the Revolution and the founding of the Soviet State. This moment was supposed to divide history into two periods: the exploitative and degenerate old world was to be transformed into a new, proletarian paradise. The Strugatskys do not reverse this vector to claim that the old world was better than the new; they simply describe contemporary, everyday life in the Soviet Union as appallingly banal, bureaucratic, imperfect, and spiritually bankrupt. (…) We might posit a horizontal axis of description which runs the gamut of the mundane aspects of a Soviet citizen’s contemporary existence. This axis should properly be called the axis of byt. ‘Byt’ is an untranslatable Russian term meaning, roughly, the dull, routine, hopeless dreariness which inheres in the physical reality of one’s everyday life. (…) Clearly, much of the Strugatskys’ irony is aimed at the sorry condition of the ‘new millennium’. If the Revolution signalled the end of history, than what has followed is not the Kingdom of Heaven, but its ludicrous parody: contemporary byt. However, the starting point of the Russian Revolution is also crossed by another, vertical axis. This axis is best understood as an unbroken continuum of cultural memory. That is, a succession of literary styles, philosophical trends, historical events, and religious debates which had been suppressed by the regime and largely forgotten during the Strugatskys’ lifetime is pieced back together by way of frequent symbolic or intertextual allusion. As the preliminary work for this study progressed, it became increasingly evident that a significant source of meaning and imagery in the Strugatskys’ ‘future’ or ‘alien’ worlds is derived from the literary and philosophical/religious heritage of Russia’s Silver Age and post-Revolutionary avant-garde. The authors’ intertextual allusions to Bulgakov, Bely, Platonov, and the Russian Absurdists (Oberiu poets) represent a conscious effort to respond to the theme of apocalypse present in Russian literature during the immediate pre- and post-Revolutionary era. Furthermore, the Strugatskys, like their Silver Age and 1920s predecessors, attempt to redefine the relevance of Judeo-Christian apocalyptic thought to contemporary Russian life by incorporating into their fantastic world imagery from the gnostic and Manichaean heresies, the cosmology of Dante, and – of course – the biblical Revelation.
The coincidence of allusion to Bulgakov’s Margarita and the Divine Sophia, of Bely’s Petersburg and Manichean dualism, of Platonov’s Foundation Pit and Dante’s Inferno also suggest the influence of Vladimir Solovyov and Nikolai Fyodorov on the shape of the Strugatskys’s science fiction from the 1970s on. Generally speaking, both Solovyov and Fyodorov based their eschatology’s on a distinctly Russian interpretation of the meaning of Christianity. Fyodorov, in particular, sought a grand synthesis of scientific rationalism and mystical idealism. (p.18-19)


In any case, they are among the first post-war Russian writers to retrieve this important thread of Russian culture and give it new literary shape. In short, one finds that fantastic images in the Strugatskys’ late works are taken neither from high-tech realm of cybernetics, nor from magical world of the fairy tale. Rather, they draw their images from the metaphysical systems of the early Christian heresies and dualist cosmologies, and the incorporation of these systems into the Russian modernist movement at the beginning of this century. (p.19-20)

One way in which the Strugatskys began to increase the complexity of their fiction was to incorporate the philosophical and metaphysical issues they wished to address as elements of the plot. Whether consciously or not, the authors developed a form which would let the nature of the extra-textual or intertextual material actually affect and predetermine the course of events in what was ostensibly a purely entertaining, action-packed plot. Once this was achieved, the science fiction, detective, or adventure story plot was not merely a vehicle for allegory; rather, it could in some way be shaped and anticipated by the underlying philosophical agenda.  (p. 20)

However, the contemporary, mundane setting of Soviet byt is also used as a symbolic repository of literary and cultural allusions. The trick is to create a double-vision of the modern age: ‘realistic’ depictions of contemporary Soviet life reveal a banal and godless landscape , while symbolic motifs within that landscape point to its true location somewhere on the battleground between Christ and the antichrist (where the antichrist, for the time being, has successfully established an anti-millennium!). Frances A. Yates’ fascinating study of the classical, medieval, and Renaissance Art of Memory provides the most useful relationship between wetting and theme in the Strugatskys’ science fiction. In the classical world, before the invention of the press, the ability to store in proper order a large or complicated set of information was of utmost importance to any intellectual endeavor. An accomplished orator of could recite lengthy speeches without the use of notes; a lawyer in Greek or Roman antiquity could keep innumerable facts about a case straight in his head (…) We should understand what kind of mnemotechnics the ancients used to achieve a prodigious ‘artificial memory’. (p. 23)

A consistent theme in all of the Strugatskys’ mature works is the catastrophic loss of cultural memory which has occurred in the Soviet Union within their lifetime. In the Strugatskys’ handling, the genre of science fiction itself is subordinate to this theme, since a culture which cannot remember its past cannot ‘remember’ its future either. The Strugatskys’ non-extrapolatory science fiction is based on the notion that the rapid loss of cultural memory has shortened the approach of the future, which, in fact, has already merged with the present. The stylistic result of this conflation of the present with an unimaginable and unimagined future is most noticeable in the description of the setting.
As we shall see in more detail, the Strugatskys’ settings provide the loci and the images to jog one’s memory of a long and complicated subtext – the Western cultural heritage of the Russian intelligentsia. The settings of all the novels discussed in this chapter are intentionally – to the point of stylistic didacticism – designed as fictional ‘rooms’ or ‘landscapes’ cluttered with half-familiar ‘images’ which represent the concepts and the texts the authors wish the reader to recall. (…) In The Doomed City, the protagonist’s daily walk home to the suburbs leads him past workers digging a foundation pit. At the same time, the reader must mentally ‘walk by’ Platonov’s novel The Foundation Pit: i.e., the device insures that the reader will recall both the content of Platonov’s long-suppressed anti-utopian masterpiece, and its proper ‘location’ (order) in the broken and distorted continuum of Russian intellectual history. (…)  In The Doomed City and A Lame Fate, landscapes and interiors harbour the imagery of a rich and eclectic selection of the literary and philosophical ‘monuments to the spirit’ inherited by the Russian intelligentsia at the turn of the century. A closer examination of these settings is crucial, since it should reveal exactly what part of Russia’s cultural memory is being sculpted into the literary landscape for preservation, and why. (p. 25-26)


How are the apocalyptic and gnostic motifs underlying plot formation and sculpted into the landscape reflected in the characterisation of the protagonists? How does the relationship between the human protagonist and the alien change over time? The study of characterisation culminates the process of discovering how the Strugatskys’ unique brand of science fiction has served the needs of the Russian intelligentsia so well for three full decades. On eight expect that the intelligentsia readership has found a reflection of itself in the Strugatskys’ heroes, and this is indeed the case. Furthermore, by using the fantastic licence to model reality, the authors have actually provided a kind of cultural myth to live by. The Strugatskys’ heroes not only embody the values of the intelligentsia at any given time; they carry these values into the experimental future or alternative world of the fantastic, where they find either rejection or affirmation.
So far, we have predicted that a prefigurative plot or a ‘loaded’ landscape can refer the educated reader to a variety of other texts which are important for cultural memory. The pattern of subtexts discovered by the reader lends considerable philosophical depth to the superficially straight-forward, popular-genre format. Clearly, the more the reader knows about the inter-textual world the Strugatskys refer to, the greater the meaning (and didactic value) of the novel. A reader les literate in the cultural experience of the Russian/Jewish intellectual in the twentieth-century Soviet Union will understand the novel accordingly: as a more or less self-referential, purely fictional entertainment. Before connecting this aspect of reader-reception to the ‘myth-making’ function of the Strugatskys’ science fiction, it is necessary to look at the more obscure subtexts which inform and change the image of the hero in the late works. (p. 26)


now forward to pages 74-77, the analysis of The Doomed City. I was particularly interested in this part because of the idea of a Dantean descent into a subterranean, ‘subconscious’ compound – what I essentially explore in my In the Museum 1-3, adapted to a museum complex that Christopher Walken visits. MG


In part 1, chapter 3 of The Doomed City, Andrei has just been catapulted out of a fantastic ‘Red House’ onto a square in the city. The ‘Red House’ appears in a different location in the city on different nights; it seems to exist at will in different places at different times. (…) The physical parallels in the two stories are made significant by paralleles on the spiritual or legendary personages who are suffering the consequences of their various willed perversions, they are also allegorical figures representing the potential for evil inherent in the poet’s own soul, and within any individual soul. It is a gross, but not inaccurate simplification of the allegory to say that until each individual recognises the hell within, it will be impossible for any community, or country, or humankind as a whole to achieve the harmony of Paradise – in secular terms, social utopia. Virgil is chosen to accompany Dante in his journey through Hell, because he represents the composite cultural and artistic achievements of Western civilisation. His art and philosophy and morality  cannot in and of themselves open the gates of Heaven, but they can awaken and guide the sinful soul onto the path of righteousness and salvation.
Dante’s epic poem is also a political jeremiad, aimed at the critical sociopolitical situation in thirteenth-century Italy. In her introduction to The Divine Comedy, Dorothy Sayers formulates the point of the historical Dante’s political concerns as ‘a protest against that drive towards theocracy… (which he viewed as) an attempt to establish the Kingdom of God here and now as an ecclesiastical-political structure’. The great twofold pattern which unfolds in Dante’s epic poem confirms a view of history as a process of redemption within time and salvation as a process of redemption outside of time. (pp. 74-75)


However, the Strugatskys’ Afterworld is not entirely imaginary or fantastic. On the contrary, it is contiguous with Andrei’s world and has a palpable quality of empirical reality – it is, after all, physically extant in many works of art. For example, the old man has no trouble identifying the location of the phantasmagoric ‘Red House’ in the temporal world, thereby ’rationalising’ its existence in the Afterworld:

‘It’s not hard to recognise it, said the old man softly.
‘Before, in that life, I often saw it depicted and described. It is described in great detail in the Revelations of St. Anthony. Of course, that particular text has not been canonised, … For us Catholics… Well, anyway, I’ve read it. ‘A house appeared to me, it was alive and in motion, it made indecent gestures, and I could see through the windows that inside there were people who walked through the rooms, slept, and ate…’ I can’t claim that this is an exact quote, but it’s very close. Then, of course, there is  Hieronymous Bosch. I would call him Saint Hieronymus Bosch, and I’m very much obliged to him preparing me for this…’ – he motioned broadly to his surroundings…
I recognise a great deal of what I see here, and it pains me to even think of those who have arrived here without understanding, and without the capacity to understand, where they are. A tortuous incomprehension of what surrounds them, compounded by tortuous memories of their sins. Perhaps this is also the great wisdom of the Creator: eternal consciousness of one’s sins without the realisation that one is being punished… Take for example, you, young man – for what sins were you healed into this abyss?’
‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about,’ grumbled Andrei. ‘Religious fanatics are the last think we need in this place….’ he thought to himself. (The Doomed City, 271-272)


Thus, not only the ‘Red House,’ but the entire city, and even its geographical location, has a solid precedent in artistic and cultural icons of Western civilisation. The pattern of intertextual allusions is already evident: the setting is prefigured by artistic depictions of the Apocalypse and the Underworld. In the interplay between the Strugatskys’ ‘fantastic’ setting and its ‘real’ intertextual precedent, the discrepancy between the two planes of reality is, in fact, neutralised. Both Andrei’s perceptions and the old man’s perceptions are correct simultaneously: they are living in the Soviet Union in the latter half of the twentieth century, and they are living in Hell. If one distills and specifies the source of humour in the Strugatskys’ text, one finds that the humour of the situation arises as a kind of inevitable byproduct of the ‘neutralisation’ process: the realisation that the real and the fantastic – the contemporary reader’s world and the ‘infernos’ of world literature – are one and the same thing, evokes the ironic laughter of recognition. (pp. 76-77)



Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy against the Human Race, New York: Hippocamus Press, 2010

In Conspiracy, Thomas Ligotti traces a lineage of pessimist thinkers over the last few centuries. The book’s central Conspiracy is the way humans uphold the illusion of life’s preciousness rather than taking the mature, collective decision to opt out on a grande scale. Not every pessimistic writer though makes the cut; to be part of Ligotti’s inner circle one has to really mean it. Some of the cited writers in Conspiracy committed suicide right after having written down their main argument. The pessimist bar is therefore high. It makes the book more dangerous too. Ligotti is a gifted non-fiction writer and some distinct humour adds instances of comic relief (ok they are neither comic, nor a relief). Ligotti’s argument is far too precious to him and he would never betray his ideas by ironic distancing effects. His twisted, dry yet ‘funny’ comments inject humour not to bring relief, rather they expose the hollowness behind the conspiracy (Examples, italics by Ligotti: ‘But one must take into account that we live on a world that spins. After considering this truth, nothing should come as a surprise (p. 182). As for those people who still go about their ordinary, average business complacently enjoying the skies of spring and the flowers of summer, innocently unaware of the monstrosities with which they coexist – they are children (p. 193). Rather than being a visionary or a prophet, Zapffe was an analyst of disaster, and his pessimism is nothing if not down to earth (p. 176). Yet even the consolations of bleakness have their limits for those who treasure philosophical and literary works of pessimistic, nihilistic, or defeatist nature as indispensable to their existence. And should bleakness itself fail them, they have been failed indeed (p. 152). While the abolishment of human life would be sufficient for the average pessimist, the terminal stage of Mainländer’s wishful thought was the full summoning of a ‘Will-to-die’ that by his deduction resided in all matter across the universe. (…) Unsurprisingly, the work never set the philosophical world ablaze (p. 35) – lol).

The whole book refers to this massive withdrawal gesture (total human self-annhilation by educated choice). Ligotti is well aware that it would be difficult to convince all humans to commit to such gesture. He knows that the radical pessimists he reads, admires and cites are minor underground figures (except hero Schopenhauer and problem child Nietzsche who does not fully make it into the club). Nevertheless Ligotti does as much believe in these writers as he wishes for a discontinuation of the human race (which goes hand in hand of course). This book is Ligotti searching and finding allies for his unpopular cause. The book remains a lucid, philosophical musing in an antinatalist vein. And Ligotti gives some good insights into the conspiracy itself, the inner workings of the massive facades humans erected to act out their not so elaborate puppet plays. Ligotti is at his most intense when writing about puppets coming alive, human puppets, essentially. This is his craft as a supernatural horror author – his real job. As Lovecraft, Ligotti finds relief in the supernatural, the immaterial, cosmic weirdness that inhabits all conscious worlds. For Ligotti, the rise of consciousness was the single most incisive error event that ever took place. Conspiracy can be seen as promoting a natural corrective to this event, namely to undo consciousness.

Conspiracy is important, not just for its True Detective prominence (series creator Nic Pizzolatto took elements of Conspiracy for modelling the Rusty Cohle character with his ligottiesque worldview – Nihil Unbound by Ray Brassier and In the Dust of this Planet by Eugene Thacker being other important sources), but for its radically honest and non-conformist attitude. Ligotti loves the writers he cites, did some profound research. You can sense that he would go far to find a decisive fragment of pessimist writing he heard of. The question remains why Ligotti keeps on writing and thinking, rather than going straight back into the no sphere. Yes, reading and writing probably keeps him alive. Ligotti is a book-being. Supernatural literature is his nourishing mother. The supernatural ideas shining through the books he cherishes hint at other spheres beyond human consciousness. Ligotti may find moments of solace from the dark theoretical texts he seeks out. There is a sharing element to written down pessimism. One witnesses first hand how someone else knew that living was and is ‘not right’. If one shares his or her (the total absence of cited women writers in Conspiracy is a massive black hole) inner most relation to life or the wish to be no-one, the resulting text fascinate and might find admirers. Ligotti in turn will have his own receptive readers, and many, myself included, will come from an Urbanomic or True Detective connection and will read Conspiracy from an aesthetic-weird-entertainment angle, rather than literally follow the arguments made (which is probably ‘healthier’).


Heinz, comic strip by René Windig and Eddie de Jong (1987) – Ligotti’s fate?

Diving into the book, into Ligotti’s mind (god no), here a footnote on the last page of the book: ‘One cringes to hear scientists cooing over the universe or any part thereof like schoolgirls over-heated by their first crush. From the studies of Krafft-Ebbing onward, we know that it is possible to become excited about anything – from shins to shoehorns. But it would be nice if just one of these gushing eggheads would step back and, as a concession to objectivity, speak the truth: THERE IS NOTHING INNATELY IMPRESSIVE ABOUT THE UNIVERSE OR ANYTHING IN IT.’ (p. 246, uppercase letters by Ligotti). Here, Ligotti is at his most direct, but throughout the book he takes a calmer, more investigative approach, even if he doesn’t give an inch.


Here a few quotes building up to Ligotti’s central essay on puppets, ‘Nonentities’ where Ligotti talks about neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger, the supposed Self, Puppets and James Trafford’s essay on Metzinger and Ligotti.

 Wether we are sovereign or enslaved in our being, what of it? Our species will still look to the future and see no need to abdicate its puppet dance of replication in a puppet universe where the strings pull themselves. (p. 226)

Why has He not have brought forth a universe that is one great puppet show destined by Him to be crunched or scattered until an absolute nothingness had been established? (p. 37)

Someone is there, so we feel, and yet no one is there – the uncanny paradox, all the horror in a glimpse. (p. 42)

It is pessimist because it turns the human image into a puppet image. And a puppet image of humanity is one of the hallmarks of pessimism. (p. 95)

Everything comes back to the self and must come back to the self, for it is the utmost issue in our deciding wether we are something or nothing, people or puppets. (p. 98)

But we do agree that, if only in practice, we are all real-live selves, since we are all self-conscious. And once we have passed through every door that qualifies our selves in some way – be it by name, nationality, occupation, gender, or show size – we then stand before the door of consciousness – parent of all horrors. And that is all there is to our existence. (p. 104)

In Metzinger’s schema, a human being is not a ‘person’ but a mechanistically functioning ‘phenomenal self-model’ that simulates a person. (p. 105)

Nonentities (pp. 106-113) thinks through the puppet layers humanity set up for itself. By extensively citing neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger, Ligotti locates the most decisive ‘puppet barrier’ within ourselves (hint: we do not make it across the barrier). 

In his essay ‘The Shadow of a Puppet Dance: Metzinger, Ligotti and the Illusion of Selfhood’ (Collapse IV, May 2008), James Trafford breaks down Metzinger’s Paradox as follows: ‘The object ‘man’ consists of tightly packed layers of simulation, for which naive realism becomes a necessary prophylactic in order to ward off the terror concomitant with the destruction of our intuitions regarding ourselves and our status in the world: ‘Conscious subjectivity is the case in which a single organism has learned to enslave itself.’ The closing quote from Metzinger’s Being No One might be seen as an extension of Zapffe’s Paradox, by dint of which we repress from our consciousness all that is startling and dreadful in our lives. For Metzinger, this repression takes the form of the aforesaid naive realism, which masks the single most startling and dreadful revelation for human beings: that we are not what we think we are. Assuaging our qualms about such a deplorable enlightenment, Metzinger avers that it is ‘practically impossible’ for us to attain realization of our unreality due to inbuilt manacles of human perception that keep our minds in a dream state. (p. 106)

We know that nature has veered into the supernatural by fabricating a creature that cannot and should not exist by natural law, and yet does. (p. 111)

What else could a neurophilosopher believe – that we should give up on ourselves and go extinct? Metzinger must have faith that once the rest of humanity has seen through the game, we will – in all sincerity and not as pretenders – play through to a world in which day by day, in every way, we are getting better and better. But that will take time – lots of it. (p. 111)

 How will the human race feel about knowing that there is no human race – that there is no one? Would this be the end of the greatest horror tale ever told? (p. 112)

Worth noting, puppet plays are local and global phenomena, puppet-like figures seem to appear in all places on earth. Puppet play unites humanity. But what stands above the human puppets? According to Ligotti, probably No One there; the strings pull themselves, eternally. Thinking about puppets as a global phenomena, one could be tempted to extend Ligotti’s line of thinking into more international contexts. Japan for example must have its own Ligottis, unique pessimist thinkers, writers or other artists that reflect on humans as puppet beings. Think of Japanese history of suicide rituals or the complex Noh and Bunraku theatre. See below the first minutes of Dolls by Takeshi Kitano which features a Bunraku play. Life as a transitory event is common in Japanese poetry too, especially in Haikus. 

 ドールズ Dolls (Directed by Takeshi Kitano, 2002)

and a Bunraku pupeteer explaining the inner working of Bunraku puppets (more on Bunraku in a later blog entry – Bunraku in connection to my In the Museum and ESGS film series).

Bunraku theatre does not alter the uncanny resemblance of humans and puppets. But a serious reflection on puppets should at least mention Bunraku or similar cultural traditions, as they actively and practically think through all kinds of notions surrounding puppets. It takes up to 40 years for a Bunraku Master to manipulate the puppets main hand. One could easily say that these 40+ years do not influence or alter anything. But then – and Ligotti does make similar comments – isn’t art, in all its variety, the only card we have to live, reflect, understand, witness the general weirdness of being No – One?  

Then also Mamoru Oshii’s Ghosts in the Shell 2: Innocence with its reflections on the porous borders between humans and Non-Humans. Just to say that Ligotti is one in a global network of artists and thinkers who see the human being as a puppet-like entity, far from being understood, far from understanding itself, its selfness, its consciousness. The conspiracy is upheld, but not left untouched.


At times Ligotti can appear as being in favour of a Promethean thinking. Mankind would, after centuries of upholding the conspiracy, see through the puppet state and get some degree of control over its puppet-being. Sadly, Ligotti never really elaborates on such Promethean trajectories. Reading his thoughts on the Self and the necessary overcoming of it, a Promethean self-elevation of humanity would certainly ask for a completely different ecology Selves, a Posthuman era in which individual Self preciousness would be reconsidered or replaced by more encompassing Selves-regulations. But for Ligotti, such Self reconsidering steps can hardly take place in an environment that fully dwells in an illusionary puppet landscape: An individual’s demarcations as a being, not his trespass of them, create his identity and preserve his illusion of being something special and not a freak of chance, a product of blind mutations. Transcending all illusions and their emergent activities – having absolute control of what we are and not what we need to be so that we may survive the most unsavory facts of life and death – would untether us from moorings of our self-limited selves. The lesson: ‘Let us love our limitations, for without them no-body would be left to be somebody.’ (p. 33-34)

Ligotti actually dedicates an essay on Transhumanism (pp.124.127) and shows his more sceptical side: But it is not as if being posthuman is an idea first conceived in the late twentieth century. In its search for the ‘good,’ or at least the better, it recapitulates our most ancient fantasies. (p. 126) 

Transhumanism encapsulates a long-lived error among the headliners of science: In a world without a destination, we cannot even break ground on our Tower of Babel, and no amount of rush and hurry on our part will change that. (p. 127)

Classic Ligotti: Yet one possibility transhumanists have not wrestled with is that the ideal being standing at the end of evolution may deduce that the best of all possible worlds is useless, if not malignant, and that the self-extinction of our future selves would be the optimal course to take. (p. 128)

Hope, Ligotti-style?: While (Lovecraft’s) personal use for atmosphere was to facilitate a sense of cosmic laws being overturned and human experience being transcended, he also defined the general purpose of atmosphere in horror stories: to give consistency (mood) to an imagined world in which we can at least pretend to escape from our mere humanity and enter into spaces where the human has no place and dies to itself wither weeping or screaming or in awe at the horror of existence. Here lies the paradox of consuming horror as an escapist venture. (p. 184)

It must be remembered that the atmosphere of a supernatural world and its horror exist only in the human imagination. There is nothing like it in nature, nor can nature provoke it. It is a contrivance of our consciousness, and only we can know it among all the organisms of the earth. We are alone in our minds with the atmosphere of a supernatural world and its horror. We are both its creators and what it has created – uncanny things that have nothing to do with the rest of creation.

Ligotti writes about The Thing by John Carpenter and the Body Snatchers films, yet it is Prometheus by Ridley Scott that raises the uncanny questions. What are human puppets in an interstellar setting? What if there is a puppet master somewhere that coexists with us? Prometheus portrays the ambivalent and fragile puppet – puppeteer relation. Did the engineer race of Prometheus designed us? Why would they want to destroy us now? There are many unresolved questions, and maybe Prometheus 2: Paradise (coming 2016 or 17) might answer some of these questions. Notable in connection to Ligotti is the dark aesthetic universe of the engineers (H.R. Giger aestetics – another co-explorer of the great unknown). Prometheus is of course a Hollywood ‘mainstream’ production, yet the issues the film raises are not entirely dissimilar to the ones evoked in Ligotti’s Conspiracy.

As for humans, can they at some point reach interstellar presence and inhabit planets in different galaxies? Or, before such an expansion, will humans reach a point where they can build new organisms from scratch and become engineers themselves? What sort of responsibility would that entail? In what new ethical universe would humanity then enter? And these new beings, will they know and learn more than their conceivers and, in an Oedipal twist (like the Cylons in Battlestar Galacticaoutsmart them and then again become creators of strange new lifeforms? There is no end in the puppet – puppeteer line of thinking and the queerness of who conceived who can reach new heights. Ligotti would probably bundle these visions together and dismiss them all as variations of puppet states. But not so sure that would render justice to the by then cosmic mindfuck. Maybe Ligotti secretly wishes all to end before it reaches proportions of interstellar horror (I can see his point there, but then I would like to see it happen too). The question remains: What to do AS puppets – or puppeteers? Does becoming puppet masters automatically mean to repeat the nonsense? We are on our way to become movers of worlds, think of Minecraft and other powerful videogames that will merge with reality soon enough. On a smartphone, we can move goods around and even change destinies. God – or whatever alien race it was – might have created earth in 7 days via sophisticated terraforming technology, plus DNA engineering devices. And then, at a later stage, sent a Jesus clone to open our eyes, somewhat.


The last engineer reads Prometheus. Another No One? (Production still of Prometheus by Ridley Scott)

As a final note, there are surprising parallels between Ligotti and singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, especially their shared personal, pessimistic, yet humorous, insightful outlook. Chesnutt’s songs can be intense laments about the torture that life can be, or jovial musings on the ambivalent state of things. Chesnutt openly sang about suicidal tendencies and dark inclinations in earnest ways. Through the music (as Ligotti through books), a sublimation of sorts take place and the listener can take part of Vic’s thoughts and sufferings. Again, art offers at least some possibilities for sharing and disseminating anger or other types of complex emotions. Vic and Thomas – radical, earth bound beings – give insight into supernatural spheres, including the spheres’ potentially massive indifference towards human beings.
and of course his epic ‘Distortiion’ which features in In the Museum 1
Lyrics Distortion:
Everybody lies
What’s the big deal?
It’s impossible to know what is and isn’t sealed
Faith is the lies we tell and tell ourselves
Life is the lies we tell everybody else
History is a daisy chain of lies
Humans love distortion
Public record is a poetic device
Blown way out of all proportion

[Spoken:] I look at the color red, and say ‘red’.
everyone else looks at the color and says ‘reddish’.
we all say I don’t believe it til I see it,
but so much happens between light in the eye and assimilation of that data in the consciousness.
a symbol beam bending, or .. Or experienced anomalies
or electrical distortion along the optic nerve.
but more mysterious are the magnetic osmotics
sloshing around inside the hi-falutin grey filter switchboard that is brain.
Miles of rough road!
Vital baggage is tossled gore, tossed off the truck
Everyone sees it in a certain way, everyone knows it as only they can know it,
and everyone has things that only they can see
Understanding breaks down,
Gulfs in agreement develop
..[old greekdoms??] Crumble
We all define the stuffs and stages of our worlds with terse tags and populist generalities.
We all know a rose, is sometimes a rose
But what fucking color is it? what fucking color is it
Everybody fibs, myths are entertained
Delusions are encouraged and/or covertly ingrained
Faith is the lies we tell and tell ourselves
Life is the lies we tell everybody else
Common knowledge is a daisy chain of lies
Humans love distortion
Civilization is costume revery, culture by coercion
Everybody lies


The movie is filled with references to fantasyphilosophy and Zen and addresses aesthetic and moral questions. For example, the film begins with a quotation from Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam‘s Tomorrow’s Eve from 1886: “If our Gods and our hopes are nothing but scientific phenomena, then let us admit it must be said that our love is scientific as well.” Other numerous quotations in the film come from BuddhaConfuciusDescartes, the Old TestamentMeiji-era critic Saitō RyokuuRichard DawkinsMax Weber,Jacob GrimmPlatoJohn Milton, 14th century playwright Zeami Motokiyo, the Tridentine Mass, and Julien Offray de La Mettrie, French Enlightenment philosopher and author of “Man a Machine” (1748).

The characters and their names contain many allusions to other older works. For example, the “Hadaly” model robots refer to a human-like robot named Hadaly featured in Tomorrow’s Eve, also the book that popularized the word android. The company LOCUS SOLUS is named for the 1914 novel by Raymond Roussel, which also shares certain thematic elements with the film, such as a mansion containing tableaux vivants. The police forensic specialist, Haraway, is most likely named for Donna Haraway, feminist author of the Cyborg Manifesto. Haraway’s character is likely based on Susan Calvin from Asimov’s Robot series. TheRobot series is also referenced in the film’s androids as they comply with a modified version of Asimov’s Third Law of Robotics.

Dolls are also an important motif in Innocence; many have “spirits” of some sort, but at the same time are not quite human. They are based on the art of Hans Bellmer, a dollmaker famous for his disturbing, erotic ball-jointed female dolls.[3] Bellmer’s name briefly appears in one scene on a book cover. As Oshii says, “They want to become fully human — but they can’t. That dilemma becomes unbearable for them. The humans who made them are to blame. They try to make a doll that is as human as possible — but they don’t think of the consequences.” Even the human or partly human characters move in doll-like ways, notes Oshii. Oshii also planned an exhibition to commemorate the film, the exhibition showcased several Japanese artists’ work of ball-jointed dolls.[when?]

The parade sequence is based on a religious procession and a temple in Taiwan.[4]


On the overall message of the film the director said “This movie … concludes that all forms of life – humans, animals and robots – are equal. In this day and age when everything is uncertain, we should all think about what to value in life and how to coexist with others.”



There is a philosophical mood underlining the film. The characters often quote all kinds of literary and philosophical sources (as if they could mentally access a universal knowledge base à la wikipedia), and at one point there is a Zeami quote, translated as follows:

“Life and death come and go, like that of a puppet on a stage. When the string breaks, the puppet falls apart.”

Then an eery sequence shows a masked crowd throwing puppets into a huge fire. The burning of these puppets seems to be a ritual in an environment, where the borders between the organic and inorganic have blurred.

Zeami 9Zeami      Zeami 10 Zeami 11 Zeami 13Zeami 7 Zeami 14 Zeami 16 Zeami 4Zeami 17Zeami 6


The slow motion of a killer robot being shot and disintegrating (in sequence):

Gits_1 Gits_2 Gits_3 Gits_4 Gits_5 Gits_6 Gits_7 Gits_8 Gits_9 Gits_91 Gits_ShipThe dreamy ship





Melanie Gilligan

March 12, 2012 / Melanie Gilligan presents a talk that explores the potential agency of affect within a capitalist system in crisis. These are ideas that underpin her new work The Common Sense. In this science fiction, the invention of a new technology that allows people to feel each other’s emotion results in a worldwide revolution against economic inequality.

JC Chandor: Margin Call and All is Lost



Our Man (Robert Redford) using a Sextett navigation tool in All is Lost (directed by JC Chandor, 2013)


American director JC Chandor is one of the most exciting new filmmakers. His brilliant first feature, Margin Call, described the horrors of a near financial breakdown from the inside of a Lehman Brothers-type investment bank. The film gave an unprecedented fictive insight look into a high-stress scenario based on the initial stages of the 2008 financial crises. When a trader (Zachary Quinto) first discovers anomalies in the system, the lower ranking employes gather and stare incredulously into the graphs and numbers on the computer screen (Paul Bettany, Penn Badgley). A wonderful cinematic standoff moment of human bodies vs. highly abstract technological data. The danger is, and here lies the palpable, but immaterial, quantum-abstract horror, somewhere hidden inside the banking network ready to unleash a toxic tsunami. The company faces a systemic or human-made (who knows) error so huge it could bring down the entire company and ripple through the global economy with destructive force. Bettany and co. stare at numbers, numbers somehow linked to their very lives, and the lives of countless others out there in this complex, interconnected maze called city. There are no usual physical monsters in Margin Call, the immaterial ‘new’ horror is inscribed instead into the general atmosphere, the tenseness of the employees, the uncertainties of the consequences if this goes wrong. Note: Financial crisis first manifests itself in unusual algorithmic patterns, then rumours spread and lead to radical changes of the emotional inner state of the employees (the sudden realisation of the magnitude). Words are uttered, the problem is addressed via simplified models (‘talk to me as you would talk to a child’), then stress breaks free, open threats come to the outside, containment deals are forged. Some guard sane, professional pragmatism (Kevin Spacey). The top boss arrives at 2am (helicopter), calm but tense (Jeremy Irons). The parties try to understand, again, what has happened, and to make a plan how to fix it. Anger erupts, the Head of Risk and her boss is help- and speechless (brilliantly played by Demi Moore and Simon Baker). They have no clue. The only person who saw it all coming (Stanley Tucci) got fired recently.

Besides Melanie Gilligan’s Crisis in the Credit System, Margin Call is the best films about the financial crises. It portrays the systemic dangers of technological financial systems. Margin Call is a film about technological acceleration, human despair and the feeling of obsolescence when faced with systemic catastrophe. In short, a film about Anthropocene, the age that ‘marks the evidence and extent of human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems’ (Wikipedia). Humans built the global economic infrastructure, but when toxic products, bubbles and other dangerous economic elements appear and the overall system stability is threatened, humans find themselves in a position of helplessness, in a radically fragile state, as if put in place by an Artificial Non-Intelligence. Here, a new existentialism comes in.

In his most recent film, All is Lost, the ensemble cast has disappeared in favour of an aged, but healthy looking Robert Redford, the only actor to appear in the entire film. Is JC a true author cineast? Would a thematically coherent inner line emerge? After watching All is Lost, it can be confirmed. Chandor continues his existentialist quest into the very fabric of contemporary human fragility in a global, interconnected world. Here, the global is an international water and trade route environment (the Indian Ocean), where Our Man (Redford) gets shipwrecked by a drifting container (an anonymous, modern-metal body with cheap mass-produced shoe-entrails spilling into the ocean).

For the rest of the film, Our Man is struggling to keep alive in the rough sea. It is compelling to watch how Chandor manages to focus on the objects that give hope to Our Man: cans of food, a sun hat, a plastic water canister, a sextant, maps and navigation book, a water protection suit, paper etc. Again, as in Margin Call, we have technological devices, albeit simpler ones, that take center stage in the game of survival. In Margin Call, the technology is hidden away in computer systems and financial networks. The objects in All is Lost are man-sized, basic, helpful. They become co-protagonists of sorts, because Our Man cares for them and we with him.

In today’s world humans and objects are intrinsically bound together (think of smartphones). All is Lost is an homage to one particular object, the sextant (see image above). Wikipedia: ‘A sextant is an instrument used to measure the angle between any two visible objects. Its primary use is to determine the angle between a celestial object and the horizon which is known as the object’s altitude. Using this measurement is known as sighting the object, shooting the object, or taking a sight and it is an essential part of celestial navigation.’ The object is a hymn to good old engineering and a metaphor for navigation as such. We don’t know much about Our Man on the ship, he certainly enjoys being alone at sea, but when disaster strikes, his will to live is firm and he is looking forward to get into the Indian cargo trade route, were huge ships transport goods as part of the endless global trade stream. But these ships simply pass by without noticing him. This is a strong moment in the film. The massive, megastructure-like container ships look like automated freight spaceships drifting through space. Truly non-human entities assigned with a mission in a global network: to bring goods fabricated by human laborers (+machine help), to human customers. The human size, next to such a ship, is negligible. The ship has human agency (the mission and goods designed by and for humans), but would not stop to consider a single human life in need). It is on a capital mission. 

Both films take place mostly in an inside (the corporate building in Margin Call and the ship in All is Lost) surrounded by a beautiful, but potentially lethal environment. The general lethality level rises with the failing of technological aides. But the films do not proclaim the innocence of man, in contrary, they are testament of the deep implication and embeddedness of the human being in the fabric of the world. ‘It’s not man vs. nature, but rather man vs. the byproducts of mankind’ (Noah Gittell, Hollywood’s Scariest New Villain: Random, Floating Junk, The Atlantic, Oct 18 2013). In the Anthropocene era, humans seem to have arrived at a fragile crossroad: They established global systems and trade infrastructure that, generally, work pretty well, except when they don’t. The two films show how fragile human’s relationship with technology and technological equipment still is. The jamming of the wet communication radio seems to tell us ‘what if technology fails and leaves us for dead’?

A message or instigation of these films could be to deeply overthink our fragile relationships with capital and technology and to find ways to make them more anti-fragile (a notion that Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote about his book Antifragile).

Regarding the weirdness of capital, David Denby wrote (All that Glitters: Margin Call’ and ‘Anonymous, New Yorker, Oct 31 2013), How could men and women paid fortunes for their judgment have continued, as late as 2008, to package, repackage, and sell billions of dollars in bonds backed by subprime mortgages? Our sense of the unreality of their enterprise is far greater than their wonder at our innocence.’ Noah Gittell compares the dangerous floating junk in All is Lost and Gravity (the shoe container and the space debris) in his Atlantic article Random, Floating Junk. Gravity is another existentialist movie and there are surprising parallels between the two. But these films don’t give teary anti-technology statements, they cannot be seen in any nostalgic, existentialist light. As I would argue, Margin CallGravity and All is Lost are in fact films of Promethean order.

One could mistake these films as conservative, status quo reinforcing tales. ‘The world is fragile enough, don’t go into space, don’t go to the sea. Come back and stay with the family’. But that would be a reactionary reading. The films have far more destabilising, visionary, game-changing underpinnings. They say ‘look, we got to this point as humans. Shall we stop here and be ripped apart be random space junk? Shall we let our economy crumble because of toxic, semi-illegal derivative products? Shall we continue to rely on a few fragile technological objects rather than prepare for the real storm to come?’ These films call for a new age of acceleration proposed in some texts in the recent Accelerationist Reader (Urbanomic 2014). In the reader, Benedict Singleton calls for a renewed space age in his ‘Maximum Jailbreak’, referring back to the stunning (and hilarious) set of ideas by cosmist Nikolai Fyodorov. Reza Negarestani, in his ‘The Labour of the Inhuman’ calls for a renewed age of enlightenment by building sophisticated, nested, global, decentralised and self-revisioning rational structures. Negarestani uses the words ‘rational vectors’ to describe the navigational characteristic implied in his concepts (the All is Lost Sextett comes to mind again with its vectorial purpose). An Accelerationist stance seems to say, ‘let’s understand our terrestrial standing as co-authors of Anthropocene. Let’s really understand it, and therefore, let’s build (infra-) structures that assume our position as beings-as-common-authors in order to make us and our impact on earth more anti-fragile, more self-revising, more rational (which implies a concentration on cities to alleviate impact on the general ecological environment outside the cities)’.  Accelerationism wants technology that is more solid in its anti-fragility and reliability. Space junk should not constitute an existential danger for space travellers. One company or even several economic bubbles shouldn’t be a threat to the entire global economy. We can build it better. We are the engineers, so let’s not be content with the current fragile infrastructure.

Again, what these films show (with an Accelerationist spirit in mind) is that we shouldn’t content ourselves with myopic smartphone absorption, but might want to consider the bigger picture, the existential frame we are in as a species, on a globe in space. We built a complex, global infrastructure, but let’s not stop there. Let’s start a global dialogue and reconsider this infrastructures to continue or start the real Anthropocene project open for continuous revisions.

JC Chandor’s two films thus raise important questions about our age at crossroads. What on first sight feels like cinematic examinations of existential angst situations hides much deeper issues regarding what humanity might decide in order to truly navigate a technological world of their own making.

What is man, Our Man, when facing a major event, such as a storm, wether it be of natural or financial origin? Coming back to the Sextant tool, how do we navigate existence (the existential and rational question) and how to move forward, as a species? JC’s next film, A most Violent Year, features Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac. Wiki synopsis: The film’s story is set during the winter of 1981 in New York City, one of the most violent years on record in the city’s history. Looking forward to see where Chandor is going, and we with him.

MG 2014

Lenin / H.G. Wells

Lenin told the British science fiction writer,
H.G. Wells, who interviewed him in the
Kremlin in 1920, that if life were discovered
on other planets, revolutionary violence
would no longer be necessary: “Human
ideas — he told Wells — are based on the
scale of the planet we live in. They are
based on the assumption that the technical
potentialities, as they develop, will never
overstep ‘the earthly limit.’ If we succeed in
making contact with the other planets, all
our philosophical, social and moral ideas will
have to be revised, and in this event these
potentialities will become limitless and will
put an end to violence as a necessary
means of progress.”

in: Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution [New York: Oxford University Press, 1989] p.42.