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Billet de blog 6 avr. 2022

From Soot to Data Loot: Science Fictional Transitioning after 1989

The upheavals, transition plans and dislocations of the present make us forget what actually happened in the post-socialist countries after 1989. But it is precisely the reappraisal of this phase that would be of great importance in order to better understand our time, artist and writer Stefan Tiron argues in his contribution to the BG’s “After Extractivism” text series.

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“Your curiosity is legendary […] and therefore predictable to twelve decimal points.” (Lord Dread, “And Study War No More,” Captain Power, ep. 8, 1987)

That history has not ended in 1989 is no longer a secret. Just that after Russia’s aggression against Ukraine things feel ever more muddled and mysterious. The current essay ends with a conjecture – resorting to science fiction tropes as a conjecture about the long post-1989 transitioning.

As such, it generally agrees that fictions do not bridge over, nor are they putative stepping stones to what lies outside (outside the purview of our philosophy or science, our models, our predictions). Instead, fictions end up enlarging and widening those “pockets of incomprehensibility” that tend to reform and regroup elsewhere, if, and only if reason is up for its infinite task as philosopher and ex-Maoist of la gauche prolétarienne Guy Lardreau tried to articulate in 1988.

To be or not to be predictive”

Our long COVID-19-affected sense of history has been shaken yet again by the brutal realization that one cannot get too attached to ‘predictive models’ constantly in need of ever more data, data crunching and “structural adjustment.” If to be or not to be predictive is a must nowadays, uncertainty is far from gone, impregnating everything from the commanding heights of economy to neurological models of the human mind as a “highly evolved prediction machine” (Anil Seth) till the very real abstractions operating together both mathematically and metaphysically, as a joint productive engine that Justin Joque confronts in his recent “Revolutionary Mathematics” book. There’s talk of a New Cold War or “The end of globalization as we know it” – all in cognitive dissonance with facts on the ground.

Do we really need to read anodyne letters written by asset manager Larry Fink to his BlackRock shareholders, diagnosing the “polycrisis” of our times (the pandemic, the energy transition, biodiversity loss, food, and water shortages) just in order to experience such a cognitive dissonance? Maybe not, even if there is all this feverish onrush to reposition, to bolster previous status quo or to alternate between divesting from fossil fuels with more fuels or introduce self-defeating measures like subsidizing diesel and public transport.

1990s hardcore Ur-transitiong years

What are we to make of these quickie de-risking schemes, including deleting personal tweets? “Decoupling” or “transitioning” on the ground mean discomforting truths, including swapping messy alliances for even messier ones (Russians for Saudis). Amid all this, there is a growing forgetfulness and bouts of copious amnesia about what happened after 1989, or how are we to exactly gauge those historically relevant events in the light of current transitioning.

A dim remembrance prevails, of 1990s hardcore Ur-transitioning years from the planned economy to free market fundamentalism, financial markets, “shock therapy” restructuring Eastern Europe as well as the Soviet Bloc. To complicate more this economic or historical reckoning with that transitional period, I am going to add another dimension, a SF one. That is because the East bloc phase space seems to be caught up in something more like Marvel’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”

Artwork: Colnate Group (2022) cc by nc

A manifold of undifferentiated transitional states

It is as if the 1989 portal stayed opened for too long, and we are now all being reformatted by these incomplete or miscalculated transitions. So without abandoning transition as defined by its particular context, historical or geopolitical circumstance (from this to that), let’s regard it as more of a manifold of undifferentiated transitional states; multi-transitioning from one extractive regime to another extractive regime, from carbon-intensive to a carbon-free economy but also from the public ownership of Europe’s vestigial old growth forests to Ikea’s ‘standing reserve’ (currently Romania’s largest landowner) and towards digital feudalism (or Techno-Feudalism) where IT entrepreneurs backed by VC became large land-owners, enclosing public lands or disrupting shepherd trails in the name of efficiency or good husbandry and so on.

Even more worryingly, there’s a transitioning at the time towards increased militarism and sabre- rattling as well as towards what peace-economist John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) always warned against: military deficit-spending as a motor of growth. Democratic world leaders are upping the ante – with predictably higher military budgets for both Germany and the US, and Joe Biden’s proposal for a whooping 813 billion Pentagon defense spending, at a time when the US is outspending everyone on defense, in the words of Senator Bernie Sanders: more “than the next 11 countries combined.” Predictably, NATO troops are scheduled to be deployed to Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia as per the time of writing this article.

Shock therapy transitions and transitional traumas

In order to have a better grasp on this transitional manifold, I will not redirect you to pundits or analysts but to an odd little TV moment I remember from back in the early 1990s. It aired on Romanian national TV with on-the-scene reporters briefly asking a young miner from the biggest coal mining region of Romania (Valea Jiului): why he came to march and protest and what are his concrete demands?

He might have marched with other miners, young and old, all drawn by a former president from their mining towns to the capital city of Bucharest and pitted against vaguely “Maidan”-like sit-ins at occupied University Plaza, next to the Architecture faculty. Or he might have marched later on against the very government that asked the miners help in order to ‘clean and restore order’ to the capital. I personally lived trough later moments when citizens of the capital helped miners and gave them shelter and water as the police tear-gassed and chased them.

Sadly, what’s left in the public mind is a toxic info-dump of brutal TV scenes of incredible violence committed by miners against the very citizens of the capital they were meant to protect. In a few years time, the coal miners union, one of the most powerful and respected in the country, whose demands and woes inspired awe even in Nicolae Ceausescu, was completely tarnished, stripped of its previous bargaining power and driven into destitution and poverty, like a distant reverb of Margaret Thatcher’s era union busting after 1984-85 miner’s strikes. Like it or not, these “Mineriade” signaled Romania’s shock therapy transition years from heavy industry and fossil fuels towards rapid de-industrialization, rising inequality, globalization, NATO, digital outsourcing, European garbage burning and Gastarbeiter status. This was commented upon by many others, so I do not want to go on here or cast my verdict on these transitional traumas.

At the forefront of an uncomfortable future

I have tried to sum-up a dark and violent chapter of transitional extractivism in Romania in order to carve out something else: a mind-bending anecdotal answer given by this young miner on national TV prime time. His answer to the inquiry of the TV crew was simply:

“I came to the national TV [the national TV station was also stormed by miners in one protest wave] in order to demand more “Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future” episodes!”

Today, this would be a perfect meme, earning its place at knowyourmeme.com database, only if it wouldn’t be lost in the pre-Internet age of cable TV. This puzzling answer has been haunting me ever since the early 1990s and I have been tentatively exploring it in a show dedicated to SF temporealities in Bucharest at the Scena 9 BRD Residency space. The quality of this answer is that is goes against our entrenched preconceptions and challenges our understanding of transitional timelines and transformational times in one swift swoop.

We have a soot-covered working class miner in full working gear basically speaking like an entitled fan, demanding that his favorite show be aired or else there is trouble. We’re not at the bottom-end of history but at the forefront of an uncomfortable future.

To live trough the destruction of one’s world

There is a deeper irony here since this miner was soon to be televisually transformed into his own worst enemy, from working class hero into a Troma studios pollution (anti-hero) mutant. He was being “digitized” (in the slang of Captain Power fictional universe) into a sample of what tax-evasive Big Tech and FinTech were trying to distance themselves from, blackboxing all soot in order to veil their own carbon footprint and energy-hungry blockchain and crypto mining practices.

This young miner’s answer regards us all, because it marks a transition from fossil fuels to data mining or from extractive industries to “The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and The Society of Spectacle” Jonathan Beller analyzed. It’s an answer that cuts across industries, old carbon ideologies and new and unprecedented kinds of experience, stretching from coal mining towns to data mining farms, from fossil fuel extractivism to binge-watching Netflix and chill.

Binge-watching was popular not just under COVID-19 conditions (for the lucky privileged-ones who could afford to stay home) but is thematized as a large and disparaged part of experiencing within SF narratives themselves. Relatively successful contemporary SF cycles such as Martha Wells’s “The Murderbot Diares” translated into German as “Tagebuch eines Killerbots” (Killerbot-Reihe) include binge-watching soap operas as a central part of an ever-evolving artificial being’s experiential palette. Instead of following preprogrammed instructions, a Security Unit mods and overrides its own governor module, learning to empathize, attend to and care about humans and other AIs like itself trough its vast experience of such low cultural products as soap opera series.

So yes, Captain Power, that Romanian miner’s favorite (Canadian SF post-apocalyptic series) – was certainly a flawed product, and yet it addressed relatable issues of militarism, violent digitization, thermopolitics and what it means to live trough the loss and destruction of one’s world.

****

This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available on Berliner Gazette. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de

Stefan Tiron
Stefan Tiron is an artist, curator, and writer living and working between Bucharest and Berlin, also known under his alias Megatron. He is a member and co-founder of the Paradis Garaj artist collective, the Otaku festival in Bucharest, ArtLeaks, and Centrul de Calcul collective among many others. 

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