Letters from the Ocean Terminus | David Roden
A series of overlapping fragments from disruptive futures
Letters from the Ocean Terminus is a series of overlapping fragments from disruptive futures; a theory-fiction that explores routes out of the present as aberrant transformations and terraforming desires.
Pavement rushing at us, lit by headlights. Beyond, darkness.
The future, always so clear to me, has become like a black highway at night. We were in uncharted territory now… making up history as we went along.1
In Ligotti’s story “The Red Tower” an empty factory beside a wasteland engenders hideous novelties.2 Its industry answers to schedules we could never discern. In its deep service clefts, among shades of evaporated machinery, we discover some grub-like creature fresh from its “grave”. Another rash of functionless items disturbs the quietude of Being. The exits are ironic or theatrical forms of redress. Things of the spirit. You tell me its providence is redundant. It monstered us but did not need to manage us.
A true modernist exists in the past. Her time Zero: a flower opens. A futurity hedge against the AI apocalypse.
“And it never happens.” Terminator time, buzzing, vital, the way Connor sees it. Some see the continuous refresh, endless “tapping our own psychopathologies” in Ballard’s prescient phrase.3 Wound markers on dummies: “complex geometric shapes in carmine and violet.”4 As if these were dissociable from the furtive inclinations of our passage, of the things that want us. The planet is haunted. Our light is thick as oil.
Partial indices scrolling down another seamed war face. The survivor in the tunnels below Chaillot dreams of the Main Pier at Orly where, as a child, he saw the curiously magnetic face of a young woman and an unexplained murder.5
Her face displaces him to that moment on the Pier, fractionating the present.
Time travel comes naturally, like a neurosis.
He obtains help from the future. Its reality, far from being a cause for hope, confirms our fatalism. For, at the end, he must always go back. He is, of course, the one getting killed on the Pier. His blissful sojourn in the past formed his yearning to die with her (while he dreams the child who dreams him).
A series of calcified stiffs. Despite the nice wet dream of the past, nothing has changed. Everything is shot and laid out in somnolent photographs. The highway flickers in an abandoned cinema.
Your body has nothing to say. It has its own melancholy; from which we are excluded. We have passions we neither recall nor understand. We misconstrue our motives. Their immediacy born of neglect, a matter of eking scarce computational resources.6
As it is, we can barely imagine what we are, what we might get to do. Yet our complacency is unassailable. We know. We know (I hear your acrid laughter, later). The future is no longer our problem.
You imagined us fossils. Every word, everyone, arranged in the sand by the dark waters of Ocean Terminus.
Everybody shot: you, me, the man and woman on the Pier. The sun a red abscess on water. Need they make any sense to those who wait there – your unthinkable children?
We conceive intelligence as the ability to optimize over a range of environments. This implies a space of agents ordered by flexibility.9 We are somewhere there. Our ability to realize our goals is significant.
You laughed, also, at the phrase “Artificial General Intelligence” Compared to what? For others on the line we are as flexible as Ashley Madison sexbots. You said you wrote the algorithm with their help or tacit approval; called it “Red Tower” after TL. Then you boxed it in an abandoned goldmine beneath the Tundra and waited to die.
We correspond amicably. You wrote me that you have begun experimenting with your body. You make it under the silt of the terminal ocean, from where you condescend to remember us.
It begins with scraps of networks mediating simple sensors and effectors; body variants instance in vast numbers. Those surviving spiraling selection pressures scramble gametes through mutation/meiosis, or baroque code splicing.
You hand the means of production to the monsters who auto-gestate planets; hatch metrics weighting complexity and functional autonomy of their vile offspring; and so on, and so on. A massively parallel search through Daliesque fitness landscapes.
You do not know what it is for. Red Tower just searches searches, you tell me. That’s life.
The Disconnection Thesis (DT) states that technically constituted agents become posthuman where they learn to function outside the assemblages (poetry, munitions, languages, cities, air-carrier groups, functional biota) we have built and upon which we reciprocally depend.
We cannot envisage how this occurs. DT codifies current levels of ignorance. No rules tell us who or what to talk to.
Disconnection potent. An emergent phenomenon cannot be predicted from its initial conditions short of running a simulation with relevantly similar properties.10 A genuinely predictor of a DT entity – such as prospective AI or AI+ – would be apt to generate the same kinds of differences and intensities: at least this judgement cannot be made without running it in vivo. It seems that the epistemological distinction between disconnection and its simulacra evaporates in perfect Baudrillardian equivalence.
We adopt the logic of pre-emption; coupling in anomalous environments. Our natural concern with those you refer to euphemistically as “our successors” can only be explored irresponsibly. There is no translation for “A mountain walked or stumbled.”11
For the time being, the cracks in subjectivity can only grow. Philosophy is a benign histamine response, a dermographism allowing us to shimmer helplessly in the dark. Engineering and waiting are suavely parasitic on the future. At least Art acknowledges the tenuousness of its relationships. Thus, Haraway retorts, Cthulhu seems a better avatar of geologic contagion than anything anthropoid.12
The cephalopod occupies this duality, a multiplicity of seemingly incongruous features – tentacles and multiple “arms” with suckers, a razor-sharp “beak,” a complex nervous system, rows of intestinal “teeth,” and a formless “head” – whose coherence falls apart once one tries to make sense of the whole creature.13
I think you had always rejected life intellectually. I detected a kind of pleasure in that. Even if you denied it, I felt you shiver with inverted carnality. “This is already a kind of space travel” Anomalies were truer than skin. And you were that with an insistence that could be mistaken for depression by those who did not know you better. You became a vehicle of abstraction. But for what? When asked, you afforded me one of your distempered smiles. “There is equally no death,” you then told me, and with sadness.
When, on one occasion, I asked you to explain this speculative apoptosis, you referred me to the machine. “It is easy to invest the puppet with a kind of desire. We do it to ourselves after all.”
You had an extended community of seditious self-hackers. You exploited them and, in turn, they loved you for it. I remember your Russian, cagily defensive about the impact of local agonists and transcranial implants. He came through with the sub-dermals though. I think of the tele-presences enfilading your skin and those others ventriloquizing in your larynx and trachea. You hoped to become something you could not yet see and mined the future for the not-you’s. Acousmatic dreams. You spoke from behind masks, screens, or paradoxical crossing points. In a voice like birds you propose a science without an object. Of those things we now believe resemble nothing, participate in nothing.
Like the Red Tower algorithm, Neil Cassidy, the antagonist of Neuropath co-opts us into a form of guerrilla cognition (though we might not recognise it as such)14. He does not kill us; he alters us with neurotechnics divested from the NSA. He tweaks the primary pain pathways of a porn star to generate intense orgasms from tissue damage. She lacerates herself to death before a webcam. He ablates the fusiform region of another, stranding him in a gnosis of faceless puppets.
Pleasure and pain, personhood, spirituality: manipulable parameters whose operational contingency only escalates…
Neuropath leaves the reader unable to attribute him motivations or very much by way of character.15 The Cassidy Thing has used the same neurotechnologies to subtract his illusions of selfhood and empathic communion with others: “What you folk-psychologists call anxiety, fear; all that bullshit…”
Like Ledger’s Joker, he is off-screen the duration, a beta version of a “hyperplastic” – an agent that can manipulate itself at an arbitrary grain.
The H-plast exists beyond the “space of reasons” in which soft-core religionists hope to paper over Lovecraft’s vistas. The irreducibility of the mental to the physical merely confirms its long run dispensability – as became embarrassingly evident when the overkill ecologies of the post-mortals hit.
Reason and meaning are off its agenda:
They’re little more than memories to me now. But I’ve also shut down some of the more deceptive circuits as well. I now know, for instance, that I will utterly nothing. I’m no longer fooled into thinking that ‘I’ do anything at all.16
They don’t slice informational pie in Crash Space17
Of course, later iterations would avoid Cassidy’s jejune disclaimers.
Your first moments of post-life somehow knot into an acid storm
of phosphenes shearing up from miasmas of insentient computation. Hulks of long dormant machines around you
– coiled like burnt snakes against white glare.
– The air pixelates and hums.
Red Tower halting state. All bets off as divaricating agencies rip into the substrate of the real.
Prometheanism rejects eco/identity politics and embraces the disequilibrium induced by modernity and radical Enlightenment. Against those who would retain nature as an unbidden “gift” outside the sphere of production, it enjoins the wholesale “reengineering of ourselves and our world on a more rational basis”.18
But what is the limit of planetary or cosmic engineering? Since Prometheanism rejects the given of purposes and identities there are no constraints on reordering nature. A wholly compliant nature approaches H-plasticity and thus terminates compliance. This is a Cthulhoid invocation to dark negentropic matter flows.
Underneath, you are pink, soft meal. Acid ammonia strips away raw meat. A lateral starfish mouth opens. Cassidy disassembles, phasing to some soulless matter hell…
The Politics of Advanced Noncompliance
It might seem that plastic or performance arts are hampered (as fiction is not) by the conspicuous absence of posthumans. How do they address this empty concept?
This question gets things ass backwards, interestingly. The concept of disconnection is a response to self-augmentive disruption and dispersive change. Thinking H-plasticity forces us to be honest about our relation to the outer dark. Its results are salutary but not substantive. A cloud of black wings hung above the desert. Potnia Theron, Medusa. Mistress of animals, of all beyond the furling interstices of the wetland; the iridescent skin where a god might interrupt.19
What lies behind your painted yellow mask? You hinted at it once: “Finitude need to be recoded, reformatted, infinitely. A political necessity of a wholly new kind”. Now you had the means to equivocate sex-death with speculative engineering.20
If our relation to late futurity is without rule, genre or institution does not confine it. The point of aesthetics is not to conceptualize extreme modernity but to exacerbate and thus interpret it.
Your formative crime was to question the sovereignty of the present. “Money” you told your sponsors, “is just a derivative for transcendence.” To this end, you were among the first to have their bodies destructively scanned for vector upload. It was another lure, of course. I don’t think those who followed you into Matter Hell understood that they would henceforth be injuries running in hardened sepulchres.
The disconnection of the post-mortal elite couldn’t but exacerbate the eco-Jihads. The air fills with dark scuzzy beats, semi-automated gunships decked in the living heads of our enemies. Inevitably, your troops raid heaven. Smart matter n-bots above hot coronal storms. The Oesophagus riddles the core with degenerate matter trails, actualizing hypermentation in stacked continua. Elsewhere, True Communism blisses us out of entropic hypermodernity for a brief tourist season.
Landmarks. Inchoate non-lieux digest former cities – Ballard’s immense, hungry ghosts. Where are we now?
The question effaced in extensive liminality. Swarm City: a mycogoth-arterial, like buttresses of some drive-through R’lyeh. Nomads inscribe luminous flows and eddies, implement distance optima over legacy time-code. Idems secrete data junk in thick sensations. Termite galaxies in the night. They pedestrianize like drunks at a fetish party. But there is no recollection of a destination. They broadcast fleet emoticons, ardent neuralese caresses; move on.
A woman’s voice intones in gravelly North American. Centerlines unfurl into the blue whorl of headlights. I up the gain: The clip superposes on a monochrome World-0 (which para-visuals renders peripherally). It loops in my visual feed: an aquamarine vulva.
The future, always so clear to me….
But the effects of change route out from the complexity and efficacy of disseminative infrastructure, multistable tech-spoor, not exchange relations or Dark Lord habitus. There may be other flushes out of the zero modern (Disconnection is an exit of sorts, naturally). But the end of the end is in view, in a matrix of possibilities we no longer hope to master.
You are inside me, turning excess organs to smoke. Everything outlives itself at Ocean Terminus. You sit in a maze of bleeding stone, viscerally robed. A mask of overlapping leather plates over your face. Your cloaca parting, warm and perfect.
I am within you, then. Then, the mountain stumbles somewhere; a huge sound rolls off our silence. We cannot name it.