Premonition of Spasm
or Why I Read Arthur Kroker
I'm not a cultural theorist, political scientist or feminist body theorist. I think it would be wise to 'fess up right now and admit that I am a science fiction writer. "Normally" (whatever that means in the 90s) as an autochthonic inhabitant of a transgressive and lumpily mutant lowbrow genre, I would never have read Arthur Kroker. Frankly, I only stumbled across Arthur Kroker because, in antlike fashion, I was following the scent-trail of people dressed in black.
I myself customarily dress in black. So does Arthur, apparently. I've noticed over the years that a certain fraction of the entire populace of the Group of 7 dresses in black. I'm still not sure what it is that these people have in common. Very little, probably. But as the forces of reaction have intensified, this minority group has been force to coagulate in unseemly, recombinant fashion. People once light-years apart are now cheek-by-jowl. The gaudy wire-racks of my own native sci-fi are now starting to sprout certain eldritch porno excrescenes, sort of like that scene in the Cronenberg Fly where an insect leg burr (anagram for Bruce Sterling) pokes out of Jeff Goldblum's erotically sweat-soaked back.
Or is it just the opposite? Political theory reduced to the incoherent, rambling status of science fiction, political theory which has detached itself from any pragmatic and quotidian concern and now looms across the landscape as a vast shapeless premonitory cloud... Theory as Chernobyl. Arthur Kroker as an enantiodromic as-tronaut. It's amazing the mileage that Arthur Kroker wrings out of that little two-letter adverb "as." If you had the text of SPASM as an electronic ascii file (which would be kind of a cool digital move, actually), you could do a word-search in here for those ninja-like uses of "as" in the Kroker rhetoric and you could learn something useful. That, and that way-judo move where he says "or is it just the opposite."
Actually that's one of the main charms of this particular rugby scrimmage, Baudrillard to Deleuze to Guattari to Barthes to Lyotard; they have all the appealing looniness of the extreme left without there being any real-world probability that they can establish camps for the incorrect. Kroker, being bilingually rubberboned, has a markedly tenacious grip on these Nanterre U. types, but he's so far beyond left that even to map his position in the political spectrum would require some kind of non-Euclidean hyperspatial Klein bottle. It's like in The Hysterical Male, the "feminist body theory" book he and Marilouise edited, it's the kind of "feminism" where there's nothing you can do to "advance the cause of women" short of jumping right out of your skin and spontaneously combusting. Man, that stuff is fun to read. I get a glow off it that lasts all day.
Actually, I see stuff around me every day that's Krokerian. I can't watch CNN or C-SPAN for more than half-an-hour without a Kroker take intruding on my cable-assisted stream-of-consciousness. The Krokerian bodiless eye has virally infected my weltanschauung with apparently permanent effect. Take, say, Al Gore's Earth in the Balance. Y'know, as books by politicians go, that's a pretty good book; it's very modernist and sensible, and establishes a coherent line of argument and tries to hew to it and to convince the populace to go along with gentle sweet reason and all that; but there are any number of Krokerian episodes of male hysteria in it. Like when good old Southern Baptist family-values Al is visiting the hideous dustpit that was once the Aral Sea. There's like a moment of Krokerian truth there when even suited blow-dried Al realizes that it's the 1990s now and if you're not absolutely wigging out then you're basically clueless. It's that Krokerian eruption of ecstasy and dread. He's not making it up, goddam it! It's actually out there.
And then you realize that there are people around like Reagan, who really thinks that trees cause pollution, and you simply go nonlinear; you realize that the gigantic cultural engine that is Virtual America has been in the hands of dimwitted admen for twelve years, and the damage, like the damage in the formerly Soviet Union, cannot even be assessed. It seems the only hope is to somehow render the whole episode into a kind of historical black-hole, a self-swallowing TV image that vanishes into a point of light before the channel switches and all that was white is black.
The events that happened to the East Bloc in 1989 - the most important political and social events of my lifetime to date - made no sense. I don't think anybody could have predicted this. However, having read Kroker, I find myself mentally prepared to swallow it. I find myself prepared to believe that some virally potent thing in the postmodern imperative simply melted a sixth of the planet. And when Kroker says something like "We are the first citizens of a society that has been eaten by technology, a culture that has actually vanished into the dark vortex of the electronic frontier," I find myself prepared to agree. I agree, and I soberly nod my head, and I kind of roll the beauty of that phrase over my tongue, and then I spit it into the bucket of sawdust I keep beside my personal gigabyte hard-disk. And then I log onto the WELL and read my e-mail.
It's not that my mind isn't blown, because it is, regularly. It's not that my subjectivity doesn't fragment. Yes, my subjectivity is just as chopped-and-channeled as Steve Gibson's technopop sampler music. It's just that, having read Kroker, I can actually enjoy this. I take that same terrible wormwood-scented absinthe-sipping fin-de-millennaire pleasure in the awful truth that Kroker himself so clearly takes. You kinda have to see Arthur do his thing in public to realize the true depth of his life-giving effervescence. He says these dreadful, utterly maddening things in that dry, scalpel-sharp tone of his, and people absolutely laugh their asses off. They laugh until they get a kind of terrible nebulous pain behind the floating rib, and when it's all over, they feel as if they've had Filipino psychic surgery. They feel as if some kind of terrible malodorous thing has been miraculously identified, grubbed out, removed from within them, and displayed in a formalin jar. And they go out blessed by the double-sign of overloading and excess.
May we all be so blessed.
Bruce Sterling is the author of Islands in the Net; The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier; co-author with William Gibson of The Difference Engine; and editor of Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology.