The Nightshirt Sightings, Portents, Forebodings, Suspicions

Two Futures: Giger and Powers

[Reposting this old post in honor of H.R. Giger, who has sadly passed away at age 74.]

There are countless artistic visions of the near and far future, obviously, in literature, film, art. Many are realistic. Many are cool. But few have had as much impact on my imagination as that of two painters, whose work has little in common but for a shared interest in what we might now call post- or transhumanity.

I’ve touched a little in previous posts on the organo-mechanical somethingscapes of H.R. Giger. Most famous for his design work on the movie Alien, Giger’s dark, sinister “biomechanoids” show a vision of a humanity that has descended (or ascended?) into a state of fascistic, sadomasochistic machine-eroticism, a complete merger of human and machine that is both violent and sexual.

I’m not sure if the painter thinks of his art as depicting the future exactly, but to me his paintings show us a distinctly plausible future governed by what the philosopher Slavoj Zizek (after the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan) calls “jouissance.” I hate invoking a pretentious foreign word, but there isn’t a good analogue in our language for the extreme agony-in-pleasure, or pleasurable agony, that Zizek considers to be the sort of Satanic lifeblood of human existence, boiling just under the surface. I can’t imagine a better representation of this notion than Giger’s world: Machines and humans interpenetrate each other, genitally, orally, anally; “humanity” has become a hivelike heaven-hell of painful pleasure. The eyes of the figures are turned up, white, frozen in a gaze that is very much like that of an addict, or someone in the midst of orgasm.

It’s a vision of future humans (or posthumans) as lotus-eaters. When technology gives us the ability to escape into pleasurable dreams, will we have any more will to transcend our condition or continue with the human adventure—culture, law, technology, commerce, and the rest? Lotus-eating, a total turning-inward, is a distinct and perhaps (from our perspective) unpleasant possibility. But who knows, the “great silence” that famously bothered physicist Enrico Fermi, the fact that no signs of distant intelligences have been discovered (I’m bracketing the question of UFOs for now), could be the result of an overriding tendency of civilizations to turn inward, losing all interest in the “outside.” Who knows, it could be the inevitable trajectory of technological races. Stanislaw Lem mentions this possibility in his novel Fiasco.

From the outside, an earth crisscrossed with Giger’s mechano-organic canyons (that’s how I imagine the steep looming walls within which his deathly gray figures are embedded or from which they protrude) would be uncommunicative and silent—sort of a dark, terrifying inversion of Lem’s masterpiece, Solaris. Solaris is a white, watery intelligence that spans a planet and appears innocent and curious, almost like a baby that is learning to mimic but still can’t quite talk. A black posthuman Giger-Earth would be the opposite: a dark seething bio-machine, uncommunicative like an addict, lost in orgasmic pleasure that is the exact opposite of innocence.

But there is another vision of the future that I find equally plausible and equally beautiful—another vague, enigmatic picture of Future Man, but one that is instead optimistic and expansive, having little in common with Giger’s claustrophobic gray canyons.

You probably have never heard of Richard Powers, but you’ve seen his work. His surrealistic illustrations adorn countless covers of pulp sci-fi paperbacks from the 50s and 60s and 70s. They are iconic of a kind of retro-future that, even though they had nothing to do with the stories inside—it was courageous of publishers like Ballantine to depart from literalism on their covers—would have provided a kind of imaginary backdrop to the early readers of writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Brian W. Aldiss, J.G. Ballard. Sculpted surrealistic cities rising from deserts, curved glass structures hanging in misty space, lithe glassy beings that are not quite human and not quite machine. (I think the compassionate far-future robots at the end of Spielberg’s A.I. were lifted directly from Powers’ work.)

Like Giger’s art, Powers’ book covers depict a future in which the boundaries of humanity, architecture, and machine have vanished. But these future men are not lotus-eaters. One senses in his cityscapes and landscapes a world that continues to be a world of technology and society and exploration, but is somehow wise in a way the present world is not. Wise and remote. Philosophical somehow, mostly peaceful (sometimes not). It is a vision of future humanity, post-humanity, still seeking, not enclosed in itself.

I love Powers’ inspiring surrealistic vision as much as I love the fascinating silver-black heaven-hell of Giger. Both artists created gorgeous worlds that you can get lost in. Both painted visions of our future that are poles apart.

Which path will we take as a civilization and as a species?

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About Eric Wargo

I am a science writer, erstwhile anthropologist, and armchair Fortean based in Washington, DC. I may be contacted at eric.wargo [at] gmail.com.

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