In a liquid modern life there are no permanent bonds, and any that we take up for a time must be tied loosely so that they can be untied again, as quickly and as effortlessly as possible, when circumstances change – as they surely will in our liquid modern society, over and over again.
Zygmunt Bauman (2000)
Under the Skin (Glazer 2013) would be a perfect metaphoric exploration of liquid modern life. An unnamed, alien seductress (Scarlet Johansson) lures single, isolated men back to her house where they are submerged in a liquid tar and where their bodies are then slowly consumed by an unknown force. The film’s cruising scenes are set in the industrial and urban wastelands of Scotland, Glasgow in particular. The seductress drives a van around the city estates and its empty roads, but also through the teeming metropolis where movement seems both accelerated and deadened, as if time is out of kilter. The film’s architecture, its somber materiality and its oppressive mise-en-scene help create the spatial conditions of brute and fragmented loneliness. The watery tomb that the men drown in captures perfectly the sense that modern life is permeable, boundaryless, even as the opportunity to connect and expand connections is never really there. The men drown in the isolated and isolating conditions of liquid modernity just at the moment they dreamed of, and were close to getting, sexual intimacy. They literally dissolve in the condition of their own living expiration.
Scarlet Johansson’s character is also eventually caught in this river of anomie. She stares blankly at herself in a mirror, misrecognizing who she really is. She examines her body as if it doesn’t belong to her (which it doesn’t – it has been lifted off a corpse), capturing the sense that the self is a project that can be made, re-engineered, in an age of consumer products and surgical transformations. She tries to have an intimate relationship with a man in the film but they cannot consummate their feelings. He has forgotten how to connect, and she is alien, Other, but so is everyone in the film. The Other is the liquidity of loneliness. Everything that was once solid dissolves into water.
To dissolve is a perfect elemental metaphor and experiential “texture” to capture the conditions of contemporary life, and the thematic and iconic concerns of much of science fiction today. Sonic impressions and vibrations found in the liquid modern city are amplified and alien-ated in futuristic music and through the metallic, watery soundscapes of film and television science fiction; the aural has a particular capacity to relocate and redistribute the material world. Special effects are particularly liquefying, and the binary distinctions that once seemed to hold identity in its iron grip – such as masculine/feminine, white/black – have seemingly dissolved in the multiplications of self, and the technologies of bio-fusion and post-human engineering that dominate discourses flooding the media. This is nowhere truer than in the dissolution of the distinctions between science and science fiction.
The term science fiction brings together two seemingly opposite poles into the one molecular vector. Science, or at least the science of the Enlightenment that persists as a conceptual foundation of the rationalist capitalist society, is intensely non-fictional. Science is built on evidence and logic and consensus. Science “narrates” the world in forms that work hard to dispel, disperse, and dissolve fictions:
Science consists simply of the formulation and testing of hypotheses based on observational evidence; experiments are important where applicable, but their function is merely to simplify observation by imposing controlled conditions (Dott and Batten 1976).
And yet, science has always been close and proximate to the dreaming of science fiction. The best utopias and dystopias are steeped in good scientific understanding and they have been exhaustively researched so the future possibilities forged in their stomachs are believable and meaningful. Describing the work of the late great Isaac Asimov, science reporter Jolene Creighton writes,
The best scientists, and the best writers of science fiction, have a firm understanding of scientific principles and a large knowledge base; they also have the ability to envision a myriad of possibilities–they see that the universe is littered with opportunities that just need to be articulated. (2014)
The best science fiction seduces and educates and predicts; it coaxes scientific thinking into fictional spaces, and it convinces us to suspend disbelief and to work through the troubling future possibilities it proposes. Its affects lie less in jolts than in dissolves, re-forming as new ways of seeing the “real” world.
Today, however, what has arguably shifted is the solid ground that science and science fiction can be distinguished at all. Each new day brings new technological invention; a discovery or understanding that “yesterday” seemed impossible. Fiction and fact fold into one another. The predictions of science fiction are at the same time the frontiers of scientific discovery. Chicken and egg now exist simultaneously. All that was once separate now dissolves.
Not quite. The dissolution of distinctions is one of the great meta-myths of the age. The discourses of contemporary science and science fiction benefit from this great mythological Science-Art synthesis, each granting the other extraordinary power to shape the world and its imaginations. Health care is still at a premium. The bio-medical, pharmaceutical companies and corporations charge people and their governments a ransom to use their medicines and medications. Black males are still shot by white cops and white cops still get off. Racial identities still define cultural relations, unlike the pan-racial communities imagined in certain utopian science fiction texts, and those who have traditionally held power still all too often come out on top. Science fiction is very often in consort with the science-military machines that sponsor its outputs. Truth and understanding also suffer the dissolves of the liquid age.
And yet, again, not quite. Science fiction loves and hates science. It expresses itself through technophobia and technophilia, and it still tackles the most troubling issues of the day. When it dissolves it empties into its water the issues that most concern us. Science fiction is still a powerful genre of critique and criticism. This Episode of Deletion explores the dissolves of science fiction.
The Episode opens with “Dissolution“, an immersive audiovisual collaboration between sound artist Amnion and video artist Richard Grant – fusing an analogue aesthetic with echoing digital soundscapes. The dance of light and shapes across the screen is gently dislocating; a reimagining of the materiality of science and science fiction.
The video is followed by an interview with filmmaker/video artist Richard Grant, where he reveals his influences, motivations, and unique approach to creating highly distinctive (and distinctly futurist) images.
Delving deeper into critical reflections, Elizabeth Braithwaite, Rebecca Hutton, and Alyson Miller analyse the imagined and projected connection between bodies and technologies in Young Adult fiction. Extending from their previous contribution to Deletion – “Invitation to the Feed: The Body and the Environment in a Selection of Dystopian YA Science Fictions” – this new piece “In the Eye of the Beholder? The Unadulterated Beautiful and the Threatening Grotesque in a Selection of Young Adult Science Fiction Narratives” interrogates the complicated but crucial relationship between the “unadulterated” beautiful and the “threatening” grotesque in influential texts.
Sean Redmond addresses the whiteness of Elysium, arguing that the film employs a white salvic hero to efface the race distinctions in the film, re-centering whiteness as the unnamed identity that ultimately rescues humanity from its failings.
Next, Til Knowles explores the unique postmodern humanism in Kurt Vonnegut’s seminal Breakfast of Champions. Reading Vonnegut’s self-reflexive voice in the story as the staging of a conversation between characters, author, and reader that breaks down the distinction between these three positions, Knowles argues that the novel’s distinct style grounds the bleak alternate world represented in undeniably humanist concerns.
The Episode ends with a return, to the audiovisual realm. Sound artist Darrin Verhagen (AKA Shinjuku Thief) rescores and recontextualises the visuals of Richard Grant featured in the opening contribution. Produced especially for this Episode of Deletion, “delete/resound” gives new texture to the images, and invokes entirely different dimensions of science fiction. It is tightly wound and slightly untethered, evoking the interstellar and the cellular, floating in utero and drifting through deep space. Verhagen’s passionate and provocative written reflection further explores the dislocations of scale that so often define the experience of science fiction, dissolving critical reflection into creative expression.
Dissolve with us…
Sean Redmond and Trent Griffiths
Bauman, Zygmat 2000. Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity.
Creighton, Jolene 2014. “Isaac Asimov: Science Fact and Science Fiction”, From Quarks to Quasars, 5 February, URL: http://www.fromquarkstoquasars.com/isaac-asimov-science-fact-and-science-fiction/
Dott, Robert H. and Henry L. Batten 1976. Evolution of the Earth. 2nd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.