“Look I didn’t create the problem. Robotics did the farming, mining, manufacturing, construction… Everything. Left an unemployed population with a lot of free time. So I keep them entertained. I make them comfortable. So I gave them each their own channel. When human life became worthless I gave it Value” – Mr Flak founder of Flak Planet Corporation, Los Angeles 2189
There is a very broad category of future-present accounts (Chiller, Three Walls, Chopping Mall, The Council of the Gods, The Thrill Seekers, The Lift, Shivers, The Tower, Death Machine etc) I’ve been trying to get to grips with. All of them deal with what could be called – The Corporate State of the World. This – state – is not only just the old critic of anti-monopoly capitalism, high level corruption, Hobbesian Leviathan, the 1% and so forth (but should include that) – more than that it should trace out a corporate demonology, considering the inhuman, irrational(why not?), superstitious, Borg Unicomplex-hive-mind, paranormal, uncontrollable, demonic, monstrous or incorporeal dimensions of coporatism. Let’s consider that overnight, in our tract housing apartments, IKEA furnished rooms, we already grew those new parasitic organs that viciously rehash boredom into sexual-cannibal frenzy(Shivers 1975), freshly returned from personal development beyond the Black Rainbow with a new pair of irises and scalps to hide our inhumanism (Beyond the Black Rainbow) we arrive into a place where the biggest taxi company in the world has no taxis and where the biggest content generators in the world don’t produce their own content (social networking companies). Does that sound slightly familiar?
How do frozen CEOs wake up from their stasis, and what do they bring back from their cryogenic sleep? How does the poisonous legacy of old Corporations (IG Farben) consists not only of chemical byproducts of the dye industry, but also of a plethora of rituals, privy councils, Shiva statues, secret meetings and even new politics, of improved & cartelized visions of the state. Maybe you are also curious if these vivid nightmares are as tech-dependent as supposed or not (and in what way) and if there is such a thing as a continuity or discontinuity between the differing Corporate entities, say between hellish TV broadcast networks (The Network, 1976) of the 70s and the creative luxury think tank prisons of the 2000+ (Ex Machina, 2015) or how everything would fit inside a timeless multiverse with a core-world (Parallels 2015) under stasis.
Horror nightmares are graspable, intuitive conformations emanating from popular culture that reverberate in tune with the unthinkable, with the unspoken – everything that popular imaginations had to spew forth, all the spiteful perceptions they had to hone in order to deal – with the data-churning, the-multitasking-kneading, organizational-regurgitation and re-structurings happenings inside the late capitalist Corporate black box.
These are not mere reflections, representations or metaphors – mere indirect interpretations of what is going on the outside, but the very ductile tissue, the material UV-lit glow corporate holograms are made of. And they should never be waved aside as mere phantasmagoria, as ideologic constructs, masochistic delusions of the weak or false consciousness of the powerless. At best these retro futuristic and projective visions are better than X-ray-goggles, being able to (humorously, blindingly and without any pretense at pinpoint accuracy) magnetically resonate trough corporate opacity with the help of nefarious scares, dearth hypes and deadly fads or bleak comic books that deal incessantly and obsessively with the extremes of breathing air-conditioned oxygen, rephlex- pulsing under repetitive dis-/embodiment, and adopting ways of presen-day sleepwalking. There we will understand that sleepwalking is not just blind walking into a trap, or over a deadly precipice (it is also that) but more importantly it is the way to not get instantly hit and torn apart by all the distractions, all the neuronal thugs of war of daily connected living. Non-reversible consequences ensue – the soft hum of a killer elevator(a real 80s AI Ascenseur pour l’échafaud) as shaft to the netherworld behind technical efficiency (The Lift) or as deadly as a growing list of minor misdemeanors as an employee to a huge multinational (Elevator Tampering, Unauthorized Parking – The Tower 1993).
Now after this long intro I have to make some amends for this partial spoiler and unrestricted shout-out for a future muckracking comic book called Tokyo Ghost, including fairly marginal comments about how it has reawakened memory implants dormant since Mimezine, Church Windows, Synthiotics – as seen in the Wild Palms (1993) mini-series. Probably the convoluted style will keep the mystery of the comic series untouched, also keeping in mind that my review is based on issues #1 and #2 (several others already in print for you to fully enjoy after trashing my blurbs).
Trough Cristian “Akira” Darstar I got my hands on Tokyo Ghost. Yes, hands on fresh ink smelling comics printed on cellulose surfaces you can “browse” by physically flipping and pinching their bent corners. Sean Murphy (Chrononauts, Punk Rock Jesus, The Wake), Rick Remender (Black Science, Deadly Class) & Matt Hollingsworth (Chrononauts, Wytches) have all teamed up under the banner of Image Comics for this postapocalyptic, post-work, Isles of the New Los Angeles saga.
What is this world where half of the hero team is totally and hopelessly “engrossed in a dozen different reality shows, and porn clips, a dozen more social network feeds, blood sports, death races, and on and on” (Rick Remender in Tokyo Ghost #1) if not our world? It is a world were apathy is an old accomplished fact, where a total dependency on body-loads of nanopacs for emotional fixes and/or physical alterations is nearly universal. Where one might not be born a spambot, but where ultimately all existence will be moulded as walking spambot existence. Tokyo Gost is the place where heroism seems obsolescent, and we should maybe completely discard such terms as heroine or hero in the age of depression – if one heeding to the Heroes: Mass Murders & Suicides by F “Bifo” Berardi (Verso Books, Futures collection 2015) as one should.
What brought me here are the new ghosts this comics has to offer. Tokyo Ghost has synthetic ghosts on parade for us – especially kinky one: the Asian Miracle economic ghosts and “Lost Decades”. And especially those from Japan – the melodrama of the Miracle Economy where technological prowess entailed its own failures. Japan has never been so depressed, so stricken by tragedies, various catastrophes, petty nationalism (with bursts of new militarism to prove the fact) and demographic shrinkage as today (*although I beg you to deny it!). What Japan had to offer was a new corporate spirit, the keiretsu interlocking corporate system, each centering upon a core bank. It was the dream of every salaryman. A mirrorshade incarnation of cutting edge neo-Fordist and full automation before its time, before algorithmic capitalism but fully linked with financial markets and lending practices of the world. After increased spending and lending early starter becomes the latecomer in a spectacular speculative real estate and stock market bubble that burst right around 1989. In many ways the Japanese boom in consumer electronics of the 70s and 80s was a reharsal of today’s iPhone and smartphone craze.
It is always revealing to me to revisit the Japanophilia-Japanophobia (Japan as model and arch competitor at the same time) that dominated the heyday of cyberpunk movement. Motor City was first dethroned by the Asian Miracle twist – a world that was already hooked on overtime, robots, fetishisms of all kinds (even annulling the meaning of fetishism) and new forms radical self-exploitation (just think of the used panties vending machines), cosplaying, fan-servicing and Subway self-poisoning, long before, or right before others got into the game. Japan in particular was fucking with the future all along since cyberpunk all along the dystopias deployed by Judge Dredd Mega-City One and Incal. Japanese businesses were buying some of the most famous American institutions such as Rockefeller Center, Columbia Pictures of Hollywood, Pebble Beach Gold Course. Deregulation of the markets lead to Corporate wealth in Japan rising to soaring heights of Economy while using new financial instruments such as the zaitech (financial engineering which became an increasing part of the corporate earnings statements). In a echoing ghost effect – the corporate speculative profits were reported back as earnings. A sort of unchecked runaway effect was already creating completely imaginary valuations of the stockmarket and available land. The stock exchange bubble would fuel another bubble – the most immaterial of all, in the art market where incredible prices were payed for Western artworks, including lots of fakes (such as Van Goghs Sunflowers bought by an insurance company in 1987).
A strange sort of salvation was born out of this terrible spiral of profits, risk-taking and over-confidence in the wake of Californian ideology and NSA actually making itself at home on most smart(dumb)phones and global networks. Japan became nearly overnight the failed giant, canonized & haunting the global imaginary with its Lost Decades(90s and 2000s as they became known) and ready to recover what it could: a promised Cool National Product in the form of anime/manga/gaming cultural derivatives. Instead of buying & owning California wholesale (as expected in the 80s/early 90s) it was relapsing in a dense and futuristic downward inevitability – apparently well beyond the homespun libertarian technophilias of Silicon Valley oligarchies. Tokyo Ghost maintains this double vision of fabled(as in virtual) and secluded Japan that has by some (another miracle) survived and reborn out of global meltdown, automation and general tech-dependence and has made itself impenetrable (again) with the help of an EMP anti-tech barrier – the only way it could stop the technological tornadoes and global tracking-systems. This feudal Japan straight out of Tokyo Ghost has found a way to preserve a non-tech or even anti-tech secret Zen garden, or what amounts to a completely dis-urbanized Tokyo after rewilding. Japanese isolationism and insularity has played well one more time it seems. High-end tourists from Japan became a fixture at Western auction houses, luxury boutiques and galleries as well as in movies.
As an aside, the self-exiled wife of Arturo Icaza de Arana-Goldberg’s from Cory Doctorow’s short story I, Robot (2004) rescues her detective husband and her daughter – after she become a long time defector to innovation and copyleft paradise Eurasia. Just because in this future too, Eurasia has managed to avert the digital rights management apocalypse. After the financial speculative bubble burst in what was called the Asian Crisis, debt-ridden companies were kept afloat by frequent bailouts – and were know as Zombie Companies. So here is short story of how mighty companies came to be transformed into dead-alive versions at the turn of the 80s and 90s and placed Japan behind South Korea and China.
Back to Tokyo Ghost – a Japanese weapons Consortium called Project Akata and Dr Akata is responsible for the sort of hopeful monsters that every competitor wants to contain or take control of. Flak Planet, the regressive patriarchal(greyback decadent Trump?) Corporation of 2189 is ready to send its best to grab it. But this is merely oriental backlash for a highly engrossing reading. #Relevant and #wow is how comics books (as movies and other older media) are getting reshaped or transformed by cognitive (or rather affective) capitalism. Tokyo Ghost is brim full with HUDs, multi-window swarms with various, parallel, self-quantification data pouring in around the characters. Emotional Indicators 90% fed up, 6% tired, 4% unknown, 100% in love and Penis Enlargement… Like all people in 2189, even the most collateral characters of Tokyo Ghost do not just slouch around, they are plastered with hovering data visualizations, busy and awash with popping-up multi-window displays. This is happening at all times – including during the 1# Easy Way Death Races “the last sport played outside the net”. The massacre arena were “every kill is just a stat”. The way comic books are starting to introduce HUDs is for me immensely intersting. This is a completely new way of dealing with the big data overload – with the fact that each panel might now be sub-divided into several other and those in other parts. Its the gunk-ness of panels that becomes evident, the way panel seems to contain other smaller (nearly illegible or barely sketched) that me think that most comics up till now have been using some sort of ad-block, that all the old ads page is invading (in a chosen and directed way) the plot, the figure of the characters themselves. Characters are now completely surrounded by this little clouds of information and junk mail.
Since Blade Runner and Neo Tokyo roughly, every megacity and its displays, its resplendent screens and lavish holograms were the substance of spectacle, streaming endless distractions that had no shutdown button attached. But here we have something else, since there was never any visible halo of replicant Warning! or Voigt-Kampf-testing happening real time while Rick Deckard was eating his Asian noodles. You can basically see all the readouts its villains and its heroes have, how their entire field of vision is bathed in this thoroughly gamified and facebookish dimension.
I will drag you to another corner of the Image Comics world – the Island anthology by Matt Sheean & Malachi Ward. Around the head of the character you feel there is this expansion of the bubble foam – it really becomes this swarm of personal and very personal data, all the privacy filters switched off. It is as if we can read in the DNA, her dating status, her memories + her shareable memories etc all at the same time in the same panel and you can quickly choose which to access.
There is really no escape but trough this and that distraction – this is what makes Tokyo Ghost not just a comic book experience, but experience as such – were almost (including six grams of self-esteem) is materialized on just 28 pages. A bar or exclusive club or that literally teems with celebrity programmers, Flak CEOs, Corn Commodores, Water Barons, Death Racers, tech heads, emo dealers, body pirates, brain farmers = Progressive Era 1889 end-of-the-century returns at the turn of a click and with a spin in year 2189. The first villain is Dr Davey Trauma mind-piloting every damn screen in view (and there is lots) transforming and broadcasting his confrontation with the hero couple (yeah ‘said it) Led Dent and Debbie Decay into an downpour of personal digital bullying all over the screened universe.
So this is not just GF revenge picks or Sandra Bullock bank account getting wiped clean off The Net, but the equivalent of hacking into the huge LED displays on Times Square and making all the live feeds talk about you! Well it is even more than just talk, since everybody is neurally hooked, you can watch/feel it all live, all minds/all bodies from the dreaded police Constables to the TV anchormen/women are enhanced, but also subjugated and puppeteer-ed into new potential enemy material. At the same time his brutality & villainy is a terrorist act born out of dissatisfaction and out of the laboratories of mysterious Dr Akata. And then he is being hunted down not because he’s a killer, or because he’s infringing on some unalienable human right, but because he’s messing up the FLAK Corporation ratings, that is, the human resources fodder needed for constant prosumption and buzzfeed.
He’s dangerous as long as he is switching off minds, not people mind you, minds that are part of that precious aggregate called audience. This is the actual key of the massacre – the massacre of the strange and empty assets of the future: audience-mind-aggregates. At the moment when every body stopped working, even literally by being hooked and immobilized, value was extracted out of immobilization, out of ethargy with the help of add-ons, cookies and by streaming shows of senseless entertainment directly to the nerve-centers. Or rather, more appropriately, and more widely (than our brain-centric industry and neurobullocks dominated culture) the gates of the senses became the primary place were the battle for the future is being waged. Tokyo Ghost most difficult thing is to quit. Once aggregated, once nano-juiced, once strapped to your chair & personal HUD – you can never get away alive.
A final word on Flak Tower – once should actually do a typology of Corporate Towers in comic books, fictions, movies, including real-deal inspired by those movies and inspiring in turn other movies. There is incredible cycled material around. Tokyo Ghost #2 starts with this lavish pleasure dome, the gilded trap of Mr Flak, the tech-savvy founder of the military-entertainment complex. It’s an incredible almost (dare I say) Oriental hamam crossed over with a over-the-top German spa. Artificial waterfall is being piped directly from Alaska. But the world of Tokyo Ghost is tightly encapsulated, and there is one extraordinary panel, somehow one page cut in half by smog and pollution – a coexisting half of Rolex aristocracy passing trough the “Mystic Tunnel” and the impoverished favelas of lower half Lost Angeles, among acidic fjords with toxic cascades called “Mystic Sewer”. Can’t spoil more than I already have, just get hold of it pronto!
*One final note, as promised, about the Wild Palms miniseries (yeah the one where William Gibson makes a cameo appearance complaining that he’s been type-casted with coining cyberspace) from 1993 that actually plays in our (past) 2007. I had immense pleasure seeing this early 90s gauche virtual, yet not so big data oriented Californian alternate universe – where a group of underground libertarians battle the New Realist tech-religion that tries to gets its hands on the Japanese GO chip. Japan is again present in various forms, from the Mimezine neurotoxin enhancement drug used for the new hologram soaps on Channel 3, initially being extracted out of the deadly Fugu fish – to lots of Japanese language being spoken (and translated).
**Libertarian anti-monopolist “Friends” are quite a bizarre choice for underdogs at a time when most of the Silicon Valley digerati (as we know) were already busy hardwiring libertarianism with the dotcom New Economy. Be that as it may, the most enduring legacy of Wild Palms will probably be its depiction of the cult-leader, Senator and Channel 3 tele-evanghelist promoter of the new religion of Synthiotics (based on Hubbard’s dianetics no doubt). Again, you may laugh at that old Madmen retro look or the quaint way new tech is being camouflaged as oldskool props (wow those Edison era mobile phones!). It’s all a bit atom-punk, but hey, nostalgia cycles were already starting to shorten and dilate back then. Channel 3 is like a bit like an incipient FLAK, riding on the hot on the heels of The Network (1976 movie) media conglomerates – combining politics, pop religion and reality TV entertainment, bonding occultism and technology in a seamless whole. I really enjoyed how New Realism – a new faith based on artificiality, on immortalism (ring a bell?), net uploads, the mysterious Web, interactive holograms is preparing the final dilution of the ‘old’ real.
*** hyperrealism (apud Steven Shaviro of the 90s) and all those European complaints about it, the “waning of the affect” seemed backward even then, because the unreal was accomplished fact, inside the economy and elsewhere, the simulacrum wasn’t hiding anything anymore. It wasn’t pretending it is the real – it was it. Synthiotics and Church Windows are full with a diffuse but very real dotcom millenarian visions tainted by a new multichannel, IR remote-controlled broadcasting era. Stained glass and the like, even the initial (cathedral) medium were already infused with weird & otherworldly holographic and incorporeal qualities. No matter how outmoded it appears today, Wild Palms managed to show what kind of transitions or continuities existed before such technology became directly available or how prophecy can play a retroactive feedback role, or how much Singularity itself craves cultish backing, as well as tech-support for its vernacular “Everything must go” (the motto of the Father enemies of the Friends – in the bipartite world of the Wild Palms).