PRINT September 2012

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Tim Griffin on art and artifical life

Ridley Scott, Blade Runner, 1982, 35 mm, color, 117 minutes. Rachael (Sean Young).

CLASSIC WITHIN THE GENRE of science fiction is the figure of the replicant, or android—a wholly synthetic being who is nevertheless, for all immediate intents and purposes, distinctly human, possessing the capacity for emotion and memory, and even for a kind of personal evolution while navigating the ever-shifting terrain of lived experience. And yet more definitive of this figure, within the narrative paradigms of science fiction, is how he or she is nearly always subjected to a melancholic twist of fate that introduces an irreparable fissure between engineered and organic worlds. At some point, that is, the replicant becomes aware of the utterly fabricated makeup of his or her very being and the pure invention of the most intimate memories; following these vertiginous revelations, doubt as to the nature of experience itself, or as to the very idea of a veridical world, follows in train. And then, newly cognizant of his or her basic fictionality, he or she is either destroyed or cast out. (Think just of Rachael in Blade Runner, abandoned by her employer, placed on Deckard’s hit list, through no action of her own.) Only while entirely unconscious of the nature of its own subjectivity—only by not occupying a truly reflexive position, in other words—is the replicant ever allowed to reside in organized society.

Asked to consider the impact of new technologies on artistic discourse during my time at Artforum, I found myself immediately drawn to this figure—instead of, say, to new Web browsers or online journals—as a particularly resonant subject. Partly this is due to how the replicant may so readily be understood allegorically. As Fredric Jameson would write in Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (2005), the replicant may be considered “the [radical] other as the same,” tantamount to “a kind of Hegelian self-consciousness” for readers or viewers of science fiction—spurring, he says, a contemplation of “the gap or flaw in the self as such”—which is necessarily imbricated in larger social and economic structures. Hence the recurring ties of androids in science fiction, from Blade Runner to Alien and beyond, to corporations and capital—both being effective solvents of cultural difference—and, subsequently, their providing Jameson with a suitable conduit for a consideration of science fiction’s continuing correspondence with the phenomenon of globalization. And, in fact, looking back today, it is in this respect intriguing to see Jameson’s inquiry into science fiction and the turn-of-the-millennium political imagination against the backdrop of that decade’s art, and particularly amid its generation’s fascination with modernism’s failed utopias and formal motifs—imbued with a sense of desiring the new, only to duplicate the old.

But more noteworthy now is Jameson’s implicit suggestion in Archaeologies that this ideation of the android is merely transitional. For almost simultaneous with his book’s publication was the first appearance of a very different sort of synthetic being, in literature and on popular television. Published the same year in France, for instance, was novelist Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island, whose contrapuntal structure shuttles between the present and the distant future, detailing the experience of two individuals who are, on some level, the same person: Daniel, a man living in the early twenty-first century, who, while trolling various subcultures to find meaning and pleasure in his waning years, ends up giving his DNA to a New Age cult devoted to finding immortality; and Daniel24 and Daniel25, posthuman vessels created centuries later using that DNA, and whose memories consist solely of information passed down by those generations of vessels created before them from the same material. Two years before Jameson’s publication, the American TV series Battlestar Galactica would introduce a new kind of Cylon: an organic being whose subjectivity would be, if his or her body perished, merely downloaded into another, duplicate body. Being itself is rendered information, with every existence just another platform.

What distinguishes this new being from the replicant, however, is consciousness: He or she is, simply put, always already aware of having been fabricated; or, if this individual is made newly aware of him- or herself, such a realization hardly matters. Whereas any melancholia the replicant may feel is steeped in the ambiguous character (or even the ambiguous veracity) of one’s history and experience, for this new being the problem is instead one of vicariousness, repetition, and accumulation. One might have died, for example, but is the death ever wholly one’s own? And when death comes again, what is its value? Further, as the information that solely constitutes one’s subjectivity moves from generation to generation of engineered vessel, every experience becomes known in advance, increasingly brittle and insubstantial. The fabric of presence is precarious at best, having lost its sense of immediacy and singularity for another of eternal recurrence and sameness. The replicant has given way to a different model, what I would call the receiver. And if Jameson argues in Archaeologies that science fiction typically “serve[s] the . . . function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come,” such a proposition for this new being is merely a kind of chronological tautology.

And so this figure of the receiver is, as far as technological allegories go, perhaps a fitting one for the production and reception of art today, when we are seemingly aware of every framing, maneuver, and motif, well prepared for their reception ahead of our actual encounters with them. Yet such a nomadic subjectivity, for whom there would seem to be no way out, nevertheless invites reflection on an age so overburdened by reflection. In fact, this other figure even offers some compelling air of possibility, if one considers the actions posited by those literary and televisual scenarios mentioned above. In both instances, this new being in science fiction ultimately chooses to leave the scene, to stake a position where none would seem viable—to go on. In The Possibility of an Island, Daniel25—Daniel24’s successor—leaves the safety of his habitat to find the sea and, for the first time, a sense of the infinite; in Battlestar, the Cylons similarly choose not to regenerate. Perhaps these are the terms for a continuing battle in art as well, one revolving around the elemental willingness to make a similar kind of refusal today, even if just in a gamble for something inconceivable. Put another way, and to make a turn on Jameson’s formulation of science fiction, it is only by our remaining steadfastly in the present that a different future might finally arrive.

Tim Griffin is executive director and chief curator of The Kitchen in New York and a contributing editor of Artforum. He served as the magazine’s editor from 2003 until 2010.