PRINT December 1983


Ranxerox (continued)

This is the second part of a two-part article.

WHAT RANX AND LUBNA find instead is the Lower East Side, a version of the squalor they had left behind in their Rome of the 30th level. They share an apartment with a young man, Timothy, and while Ranx is working as a taxi driver, Lubna babysits. The situation is prosaic enough. And so too are the problems of the household. Lubna complains about their lack of money, about her getting older—she’s giving Ranx the best years of her life. And then, too, the dope in New York is a killer, literally. She’d be better off back in Rome! But if he can’t arrange that, then Ranx better be sure to get her a present for her birthday. Or else. (Even life with a robot has its dreadful similarities.) The little shrew is driving Ranx crazy. He’d kill her, he thinks, if she weren’t the whole of his life.

While she’s off to babysit, he takes Timothy along in his cab. Timothy hopes they’ll come across some juicy accident. A great car crash would be even better— “the union of flesh and metal” excites him to death. Timothy has a collection of Polaroids he takes of girls mashed up in car crashes; they’re his “pin-ups.” Ranx doesn’t understand the pleasure in any of that: his tastes are more direct. Ranx has been “programmed to be a stallion, without too much fantasy,” Timothy declares, and thus it is difficult to explain to him the varieties of human experience. To explain what it is to be human would be a good trick. To put your eye right up to the soul’s cells and come back to report the findings. Better, to put those findings on tape, right there and then, before you forget it all. Which is exactly what Ranx is doing. In this, the latest album of Ranxerox, Ranx is recording his story in his memory bank. (This is the first time in any of the books that we have the story told from Ranx’s point of view, though the authors switch back to the third person later in the album.) While the world viewed through robot eyes is essentially the same as we’ve seen before in the other albums—as cruel, as sordid—there is a difference, as we shall see, in Ranx himself. While he has always been able to absorb the amoral information of experience, by some biochemical fluke he now has the new ability to evaluate the experience. I called the Ranx of the previous album a robot Candide, a character whose experiences we understand better than he himself does, a character whose experiences educate us if not him. This remains true even in this album, though now we see the stirring of evaluation and judgment in Ranx, for programmed though he is to love Lubna, this system-override operating in him allows him to call her and her friends’ selfishness into question and leaves him feeling disgruntled and exploited.

The cybernetic worm turns, but ever so slowly. There they are, Lubna and Martina and the little 3 1/2-year-old baby Carmen watching a porno-soap that Ranx has spent the afternoon recording for them in his head circuit—a show he detests. No one speaks to him except to ask that he adjust the color. I bleed for this robot. If he only knew the half of it. While he’s been home recording for them, Lubna and her friend have been discussing his merits.

“He is still a little mechanical when he makes love,” Lubna explains.
“But apart from that, do you love Ranxerox?” her friend asks.
“Of course,” Lubna replies, “the way my mother loved her first washing machine.”

Ranx looks out of the frame of the strip, his violet-tinted goggles aimed at us, his expression contorted by a thought. He thinks: “What a beautiful life these little girls have, no worries, no responsibilities, always fooling around.” (Translation mine.)

Ranx’ new consciousness gives him humanizing vulnerability and enlists him into our sympathy as never before. And in doing this, Tamburini and Liberatore have extended even further the possibilities of their creation, Ranxerox, which might otherwise have fallen into the danger of repetition, the acted-upon robot appearing in an endless series of adventurous episodes—another version, in short, of the countless comic-strip super-figures.

The question is, how much consciousness can a robot acquire before becoming transformed into a human? I hope not too much. Unless, of course, Ranx can bring to bear the lessons of his life for a use higher than that of his human mentors. For a human to aspire to the condition of an angel may be one thing, but for a robot to aspire to the human is quite another. There is a salvation in the case of the former and—from the point of view of the humanity in this album—a debasement in the latter. What would it serve, say, that Ranx give up shooting glue in favor of the more sophisticated, more humanly employed heroin?

I look forward to yet another transformation in Ranx. He’s gone from RanxCandide to Ranx-Proust—the sensitive meditator on his own happiness; I await Ranx-Spartacus, the robot leader of human revolt. In favor of the feasibility of that idea is that unlike humans, robots do not forget their own history and thus are in the position of not repeating their mistakes. Against it is that Ranx seems doomed to store up a history of undifferentiated humankind, a history without point of comparison between human behavior past and present, without reference to the memory of a former, literally more habitable terrain.

Cussed fellow-critters! Kick up de damndest row as ever you can; fill your dam’ bellies ’till dey bust—and den die.
—Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Ranx and Lubna come full-blown into a world in decomposition, and for them, decomposition is the normal state not only of the 30th level of Rome but even beyond it, on the island of Lampedusa where the millionaire Mr. Volare’s villa rusts by the sea, and in New York City where the buildings crack and rot and corrode. Still, there are differences in styles of life even among the decay. If this were an American novel of a period when such titles were fashionable, Ranxerox might have been called “Of Slums and Show Business.” Mr. Volare’s villa is a fisherman’s shack compared to Mr. Enogabalo’s estate on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and Mr. Volare, producer of Fred Astaire retrospectives (robot version) and their countless spinoffs, including 3D posters and videocassettes, is a piker, an old-style producer, beside the mysterious and rarely seen Mr. Enogabalo, promoter of rock groups and homicidal spectacles, such as the one in which he enlists Ranx.

This is the New World at last: luxury and a good life worth writing back to the 30th level of Rome about. Ranx crashes Mr. Enogabalo’s chic party of S and M leather trade, art critics, and the generally affluent and is treated to an unmatchable drug-buffet. What a spread! Golden bowls of heroin (which Ranx ladles out into his hankie to bring home to Lubna) and silver trays of speed set beside plates of disposable syringes. This is no small-time gangster’s array of junk spread out on the kitchen table of a Roman slum apartment where Lubna and her friends go when they want “to do it.” This is no band of nodding-out freaks stabbing their arms in the middle of 42nd Street and Broadway, but a high-class crew of sophisticates.

Note, for example, how casually and economically Enogabalo’s guests backbite his latest art production, a huge video screen of static images of New York City (“Nothing but old Pop Art recycled,” comments one guest); and imagine how exotic Ranx must appear to turn down an offer from a beautiful woman to shoot up junk with her, using the latest model syringe which automatically locates the vein for you, because he wants his Vinavil, his Old World glue. The Noble-Savage Robot of the Old World must startle this crowd with his boorishness in not understanding that the little red hankie sticking out of his back pocket is an acceptable provocation for romantic wooing, although no one complains when he pulverizes his suitor.

Just as the drug-banquet represents the big time in show biz ostentation, so does Enogabalo’s latest project outstrip anything yet realized or imagined in the Old World. While Mr. Volare looks to the New World, to an American genre, the musical, for his innocent Fred Astaire remake, Enogabalo seizes on the ancient world of Rome to create the spectacle of the future. Enogabalo, who dresses in a Roman toga and wears a crown of laurels, stages right there, in the decaying streets of New York, a car race based on the famous chariot race sequence in the movie Ben Hur, a film he watches three times a day. Ranx will be in his own taxi and the leader of the rock group “Young Criminals” in a car. The race will be videotaped, naturally, and the cassettes sold the world over, for this is no ordinary contest of speed and driving skill, it is a race to the death. The (last) days of the Roman Empire stretch well into the New World streets of 1988. It is something of a cliché, this snuff-race metaphor for the end of our crumbling world, and it nowhere hints at the cause of our ruin. The truth is that the universal death wish has issued forth its avant-garde squads to probe the major cities for their vulnerable points of despair and collapse only to find welcoming fifth columns ready to banquet them within the urban walls.

With the money paid him for the car race Ranx is able to give Lubna the best birthday present she could have wished for: a return ticket to Rome. In Journey to the End of the Night, a novel similar to Ranxerox in its intensity and vision, Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s anti-hero arrives in New York on his first visit to the New World, and he suffers. Everything and everyone is grim and harsh and mean. But the most killing of all is the loneliness. No friendly voice, no warm smile. What a touch of human warmth could do! Or the sight of a tree, still alive. Or a sip of wine made from grapes. Journey . . . was written in the last golden days when one could still dream of such palliatives for the misery of a dying civilization. A personal touch, a vision of nature, and the soul soared. But Ranx and Lubna have no means to compare their gutted world to any better one known before. Only we, who still have memory, may make such comparisons with less universally impossible times. Ranx will never stop at the Tiber and remark at the sulphuric yellow soup of scrap and cars and glunk that it has become, nor will Lubna and her friends find that dead river unusual as they cross the Garibaldi Bridge on their way to score and shoot up. In one of the rare descriptive captions in the albums, and one of the, few times the text reveals a hint of irony, Tamburini describes the moment when they are crossing that bridge: “20:30; at that hour the air is so dense with carbon oxides that one can almost hear, in the lungs of people passing by, the crackle of cancer cells proliferating as happily as spermatazoa in the testicles of a young man in health.” (Translation mine.) This is the violet hour of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and this is the bridge into the land of the spiritually, and soon to be physically, dead.

Before I leave you with the impression that Ranxerox is an illustrated treatise on the decline of the West, I should say that one of the achievements of this beautiful work—the most important bande des-sinée since Herge’s Tintin and one of the few works of inspiration and originality I have experienced these past years in any genre—is that it never moralizes, although it may provoke others, myself, for example, to do so. It’s usually imperative to find some fault or flaw with a work under review lest the critic seem in the service of the author or publisher or even worse, that he or she appear to have no critical faculty.

One of the problems, then, if I may facetiously call it that, with Ranxerox, is that the line between the vision of our real, contemporary culture and the projected future culture is too thin to be differentiated. In the earlier album a patient just released from an asylum goes loco in a train car; he shoots everyone in sight. To a woman he has just put a bullet through he says, “Don’t look at me that way, Signora, I feel ashamed.” There is clearly an anachronism here; we can’t be in the world of the future, for today they kill you without a glance or a word of regret. And then there is the matter of satire. Ranx is dumped out of a speeding car and into a street. Behind him the ancient Roman Colosseum, and planted within it, a modern high-rise hotel, a monolith already crumbling like the venerable ruin that surrounds it. The image of the desecration of the old for the convenience of the new is one too close to our contemporary reality to be satiric—we have, for example, the Tour Montparnasse in the middle of Paris—and it’s probably nothing more than a piece of Tamburini’s sentimental Roman chauvinism to fret about one ruin more or less in a town still full of them.

Frederic Tuten is the Books Editor of Artforum.