Friday, 5 August 2011

Entropic Modern


With a nod of thanks to the correspondent who recommended the art of Gair Dunlop, and gratitude to Gair himself for the quality of that work, which we enjoy again and again in the variety of projects of his which are online. We're sure Gair won't mind us borrowing the name of his blog - Entropic Modern - for this post.


As we explore the urban environment of our isolated northern energy-boom town, we encounter modernist buildings and places, spaces and atmospheres designed or otherwise which put us in mind of the observations invoked by Gair Dunlop's art. The sense of a future that never quite got here, the sense of an unfulfilled promise. A feeling that something civilisational peaked at some point towards the end of the 20th century, and - its reach exceeding its grasp - that something, whatever that something was, is now ebbing away...

We remember the 1960 film of HG Wells' 1895 novel The Time Machine in which a time traveller projects himself from fin de siècle into the far future where he finds a society of enervated, illiterate vegitarians - the Eloi - living amid the splendrous ruins of an impressively advanced modernist civilisation. In the film, the Eloi are viciously preyed upon by a degenerate species of de-evolved humans - the Morlocks. But the cold-war exigecies of the day meant that the 1960 film made some significant elisions to the original Wells text and its societal and political implications.



Time Traveller tests his device with a journey that takes him to the year 802,701 A.D., where he meets the Eloi, a society of small, elegant, childlike adults. They live in small communities within large and futuristic yet slowly deteriorating buildings, doing no work and having a frugivorous diet. His efforts to communicate with them are hampered by their lack of curiosity or discipline, and he speculates that they are a peaceful communist society, the result of humanity conquering nature with technology, and subsequently evolving to adapt to an environment in which strength and intellect are no longer advantageous to survival.
Returning to the site where he arrived, the Time Traveller finds his time machine missing, and eventually works out that it has been dragged by some unknown party into a nearby structure with heavy doors, locked from the inside, which resembles a Sphinx. Later in the dark, he is approached menacingly by the Morlocks, ape-like troglodytes who live in darkness underground and surface only at night. Within their dwellings he discovers the machinery and industry that makes the above-ground paradise possible. He alters his theory, speculating that the human race has evolved into two species: the leisured classes have become the ineffectual Eloi, and the downtrodden working classes have become the brutish light-fearing Morlocks. Deducing that the Morlocks have taken his time machine, he explores the Morlock tunnels, learning that they feed on the Eloi. His revised analysis is that their relationship is not one of lords and servants but of livestock and ranchers, and with no real challenges facing either species.
Neal Stephenson
In the Beginning was the Command Line

Contemporary culture is a two-tiered system, like the Morlocks and the Eloi in H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, except that it's been turned upside down. In The Time Machine the Eloi were an effete upper class, supported by lots of subterranean Morlocks who kept the technological wheels turning. But in our world it's the other way round. The Morlocks are in the minority, and they are running the show, because they understand how everything works.
The much more numerous Eloi learn everything they know from being steeped from birth in electronic media directed and controlled by book-reading Morlocks. So many ignorant people could be dangerous if they got pointed in the wrong direction, and so we've evolved a popular culture that is (a) almost unbelievably infectious and (b)neuters every person who gets infected by it, by rendering them unwilling to make judgments and incapable of taking stands.



The below-ground life of the Morlocks in The Time Machine makes us think of the recently-published musings of those who would influence the future of the built environment in our town. In their recently published and hubristically titled "Genius Loci" document (beware - direct download PDF), we can read about their obsession with covering streets over, with putting shops and public spaces underground and under domes. We cannot understand this obsession. We cannot understand why these people are afraid of the sky. Maybe, because our town's predominant hydrocarbon industry is responsible for putting the "fear" in the atmosphere, our business community would prefer that we not look at the sky, out of shame for what they are doing to it.

These business interests would plan for us an underground life, just like depicted in  another other sci-fi film of the latter part of the 20th Century - 1976's Logan's Run  in which the population are shown inhabiting a futuristic underground setting (actually filmed in the then relatively new and thrilling underground shopping malls of Dallas and Forth Worth) where they enjoy an orgiastic lifestyle of unrestrained consumption in a consequence-free environment. But then, as we watch, we learn that the consequence they must face is a mandated limited lifespan with compulsory euthanasia administered during the spectacle of a quasi-religious ceremony at age 30. Those who try to flee from the society (the freedom-seekers know as "Runners") are ruthlessly hunted down by paramilitary death-squads known as "Sandmen".


So now, as we range over the decaying of the modernist dream on the streets of our town - a dream from an era when optimistic people with altruistic visions believed in good faith that they could improve society as a whole from the top down - we detect an interesting parallel decay in the discourse of our time. Whereas once it was believed that the the economy and society could be planned and structured to work for the benefit of all its members with equality and justice, now such beliefs are regarded with more contempt even than fringe cult faiths and are thought to be illiberal and totalitarian in intent. Whereas once it was thought that rationality and the scientific method could iterate a design for life and improve lives, now our faith is in market-based solutions and minimum government intervention - indeed, a minimal state - to allow Hayek's "spontaneous order" to emerge from below.

The message we see in the decay of urban modernism is a message of freedom, written in the dust for those who know how to read it: No-one is going to design our lives for us. Society (if it exists) does not care and will not care. It is up to us as free individuals to choose what we will be.

Eloi or Morlock? Sandman or Runner?


Anonymous said...

There have been some very interesting things on this site before, but this piece is particularly thought-provoking (and extremely intelligent and well crafted). In Wells' story, the complacent Eloi are reliant on the Morlocks for their food and clothing, and dutifully obey the sirens calling them to their inevitable end as Morlock fodder. The Eloi have no education, no individuality, no future - and no chance of rebellion. But they are comfortable. While they are alive. How far away are we from the Eloi right now? Still thinking this piece over - thanks for the brainfood. Cheers, Suzanne Kelly

uair01 said...

I too like this piece very much. One of the best of recent time.

I assume you already know the story The Gernsback Continuum by William Gibson?

I was reminded of this text by this : "The sense of a future that never quite got here, the sense of an unfulfilled promise."

Well said.

Other Aberdeen said...

@Suzanne: Thanks very much for the kind words - glad you liked it. @uair01: Thanks also to you and thanks for the Gibson short story link - just read it for the first time right now.