Convergence

Zach Horton

Swerve’s Futures

It’s hard to believe, but after nearly five years of work, we have completed the first academically produced, nonprofit, science fiction epic: Swerve. This cinematic exploration of nanotechnology, virtuality, ecology, corporate-industrial patriarchy, and the relationship between data, the body, and the environment is over three and a half hours long, divided into ten chapters. Each functions as part of the larger narrative and as a thematic whole. This surreal, cyberpunk, Deleuzean, feminist, philosophical science fiction film would never have been possible to make in a commercial system. To accomplish this, over 150 people worked in one capacity or another on this mammoth project, which has been housed in the English Department at UCSB from 2010 to the present.

Why did we make such an unconventional film, and how?

The original concept for this project was hatched by Lindsay Thomas and myself during our second quarter of graduate school, in Alan Liu’s “Literature +” seminar. Alan challenged us to build innovative collaborative projects, and we hatched the idea of a science fiction film that would be collaboratively produced by students at the University out of content generated by the academic humanities. Instead of the endless reproduction of tropes for their own sake exhibited by commercial media, and instead of academic media that merely responds to cultural production “out there,” we thought that it would be interesting to scramble the codes, to bring some commercial tropes into contact (or collision) with academic theory produced by the humanities, with the challenge of making our own fictional, speculative product. We thought that the genre of cyberpunk was ripe for such an exercise.

Still from Swerve.

Still from Swerve.

As literary fiction, cyberpunk rose to prominence in the 1980s along with the first wave of home computers, exploring electronically networked culture, navigating an infoscape or datascape that seemed the inevitable future heralded by ubiquitous computing. What new identities, dangers, and possibilities would emerge within this new world of digital virtuality? After William Gibson’s visionary cyberpunk trilogy in the 1980s, the 1990s saw the proliferation of flashy, virtual-reality-driven versions of cyberpunk in both literature and film. The alterity of cyberspace (a concept invented by Gibson in his 1983 novel Neuromancer) was becoming tamed, literalized, and linearized (using the terminology of philosopher’s Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, reterritorialized) as the digital gamescape. Indeed, this subgenre finally reached its cinematic apotheosis with the Matrix Trilogy, which thematically and aesthetically combined the video game with live action. The convergence was complete: the genre was exhausted.

Still from Swerve.

Still from Swerve.

And that’s why we chose it. As a genre that was about visualizing the new spaces that could arise out of ubiquitous, networked computing, it had been caught and perhaps exceeded by Facebook. Cyberspace was no longer alien territory. It was everywhere. That is the starting point for Swerve. Virtual technologies have become so ubiquitous that they are no longer visible. The interesting question is no longer how to visualize datascapes but rather, how to visualize non-datascapes? Not a historical space before digital technology, but a future space that exceeds itself. This means both a return to the visionary qualities of 1980s cyberpunk, which sought to imagine a completely alterior space, as well thinking about potential paths forward, ways to take back the agency of systems subject to technocratic logics of ubiquitous surveillance, forced upgrade cycles, the gamification of labor, and the commercialization of behavioral data. Swerve takes on both of these tasks, narrativizing the process of disengaging from invisible technologies of virtualization into the shockingly new space where technology is visible, tangible, and embodied, as well as considering the potential for new spaces that are ineluctably virtual and actual at the same time. One of the ways to explore this paradox emerged later in the form of the character Charlie, who fuses an enthusiasm for technologies of virtualization (especially simulation) with the notion of virtuality developed by French philosopher Henri Bergson—that is, the virtual as an atemporal space of pure potentiality that is concentrated to a single point of becoming by the mind. (Charlie is also an homage to Afrofuturism, a celebratory movement in the 1970s to the 1990s that explored African identity in the context of high-tech, cosmic science fiction motifs.)

Still from Swerve.

Still from Swerve.

One of Swerve‘s primary mechanisms for collaboration and visionary exploration of potentials is combinatoric. Different characters embody different philosophical stances toward technology, identity, virtuality, and ecology. The ten chapters of this long film allow various combinations to clash or coalesce into different material-symbolic-philosophical assemblages, each of which charts potential futures.

The raw content for these philosophies, theories, and fictional experiments came from discussions in graduate seminars around related topics at UCSB. Participants in those seminars fed their thoughts into forums, which were then accessed by a team of world builders who synthesized this rich academic work into narratives, characters, and a fictional world. Others wrote script segments, poetic fragments, etc. Over multiple years, I worked all of this material together into a coherent script. While this long-term unfolding remained true to the original plot outline, segments were only written in cycles of six months or so, allowing the script to emerge as segments were filmed. The filmmaking process thus mirrored the feedback loop between the virtual and actual worlds that is depicted within the film. The process itself is documented in the form of its ideal circuit diagram here.

Still from Swerve.

Still from Swerve.

Because Swerve is about a sense of expanded ecology—an ecology of the “natural” world combined with an ecology of the virtual—many people from the “world builders” to location hunters to the cast had to work together to produce a milieu that functioned as a complex, ecological whole. We filmed over a three year period around Santa Barbara, Ventura, Ojai, Los Angeles, and the incredible Sedgwick Reserve, once Edie Sedgewick’s family’s ranch, and now operated as a research reserve by the University of California. More than one member of the cast or crew lost themselves, seduced by this hypnotic landscape that may be from the past, or may be from the future.

Still from Swerve.

Still from Swerve.

I brought my own aesthetic to the project, my love of analog film stock (used to portray the virtual world in the film, in jerky, unstabilized 8mm), my background as an independent film director, and many of my friends who work in the film industry. Our all-volunteer cast and crew was formed from the ranks of incredibly talented professionals, alongside passionate students learning the ropes. Many of these latter have gone on to work in film or other creative industries. Several undergraduate students on the crew started when they were freshmen, worked throughout their college years, and graduated before the film was completed! I have never worked with a more passionate, gracious, brilliant, and giving group of people. I cannot thank you all enough for your incredible work.

I hope that Swerve demonstrates that when enough people contribute enough passion, time, and energy to a project, it is possible to make something that would never happen in a commercial system. The point here was not to make something using alternative means of funding (“independent” filmmaking), but to make something that absolutely cannot make a profit, that must live and die by its own rules and perverse desires. I hope that it will live on for a very long time, enjoyed by science fiction fans, casual viewers, academic theorists, and whoever else is willing to embark on this strange journey. Further, I hope this film will be used in classrooms. It is meant to be not only a film, but a creative ecosystem of ideas, a form of pedagogy, and the jumping off point of new speculative imaginings.

Still from Swerve.

Still from Swerve.

The film is free and always will be. It can be streamed, downloaded, remixed, re-authored… We provide the disc images and cover art to produce your own DVD or Blu Ray set, and hope you do so. (The film is so long that it spans three discs.) If you are reading this blog, Swerve should probably be on your shelf!

Swerve was made on a miniscule budget, provided by a grant from the Princess Grace Foundation in New York, a starter grant from UCSB, a very modest IndieGoGo campaign, and a number of direct donations from beautiful souls when the going got rough. Still, this 3.5 hour film cost about as much as shooting only three days on an average ultra-low-budget independent feature. That was only possible due to the incredible dedication and generosity of this cast and crew. Many faculty members at UCSB worked on or helped to facilitate this project. I’d like to give a special shout out to Doug Bradley, who served as production designer and general engineering genius, and Alan Liu, who has supported this project all of these years, and even donated a chunk of his own research funds to purchase the Avid system upon which it was edited. (And which is serving us still, as I edit a streamlined theatrical version meant for screening in one sitting.)

Adelle-and-Kaja-with-orchids

Still from Swerve.

The “swerve” of the film’s title refers to Roman poet Lucretius’ concept of clinamen, the fundamental nature of chance, or non-determinism, that enables single atoms to change course, setting into motion radical systemwide effects, escaping the homogeneity of matter. The swerve irrupts and determines the present, and is the hope (or fear) of difference, of the new. (The title of the film is not derived from Stephen Greenblatt’s book, titled The Swerve, which shares Swerve’s derivation from Lucretius, but was subsequent to it.)

Making this film has been a strange and wonderful journey for many of us, and I am deeply grateful to everyone who made it a (virtual and actual) reality. So much for history. What, I wonder, will be Swerve‘s futures?

 

SWERVE LINKS

All chapters can be viewed and downloaded from the main swerve site: www.swerveinterface.com

This site also contains a “theory wiki” with ties to the film, behind the scenes photos, and a complete cast, crew, and participant list.

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Please consider contributing a vote and/or a review of the film at IMDB.

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Still from Swerve.

Still from Swerve.


Doors

Swerve-door

8mm still from Swerve, by Zach Horton

The door, simultaneously barrier and threshold, invites us to approach, awakens our desire to pass through, to enter (or to exit), but bears the power of refusal. The brute inertia of the door, its solidity of both material form and cultural decree, can give pause to even the most tenacious of trespassers.

A room without a door, the most horrific vision Poe could conjure up, appears again and again in his speculative architecture, from “The Pit and the Pendulum” to that improvisatory room in “A Cask of Amontillado.” The most diabolic deed is surely to wall someone in, when no provision is made for a door. Perhaps of his literary brethren, only Kafka would disagree. Worse by far, he might say, is to have too many doors, leading to too many corridors, an overdetermination of possible passages that ensures that you never reach your destination. One always dies between two doors.

Poe, haunted by those doorless rooms, died outside.

Rome- Forum- copper doors- Temple of Romulus- 1700 years old

1700 year old copper doors in the Temple of Romulus, in the Roman Forum. Photograph by Zach Horton.

Most doors are meant to keep others out. As such they are signs (VERBOTEN), but they are also sorting devices (UNLESS…). Do you know the keeper of the house? Do you know the password? Do you know the combination? If so, the door will let you pass, and you will become sorted across that threshold. Rules and sorting. The nineteenth century made much of this mechanism: Maxwell’s demon, on one hand, was a thought experiment that posited a small creature who opened or closed a small door between two chambers whenever a molecule of a certain type approached. With only passive doorkeeping, claimed James Clerk Maxwell, the demon could build up potential energy in the form of difference. This was the opposite of entropy, of homogeneity. Was it therefore possible to cheat death, the universe’s heath death, the eventual state of maximum homogeneity that would leave no energy differential to do any useful work?

Dresden- ELREMA 1959 accounting computer

1959 ELREMA Computer, East German. Photograph by Zach Horton.

 

The second sorting machine of the nineteenth sentry, invented by Charles Babbage, went further: by representing numbers with mechanical cogs on wheels, those numbers could, through complex sorting—transfer from one mechanism to another—be manipulated in theoretically unlimited ways. The universal, programmable computer had come into being. The threshold it mediated was between the material and the symbolic. The latter could be manipulated in theoretically limitless ways; the challenge then became encoding, or the representation of the material within homologous data structures. Later computer engineers, and particularly Alan Turing, realized that the simpler the logical structure, the more universal the machine, in both representation and manipulation. The universal binary computer was born (with Konrad Zuse), using only two characters to represent any arbitrarily large structure. Best of all, it could be materially instantiated by something far simpler than Babbage’s complex machinery: the any electromagnetic switch, vacuum tube, or transistor. Each of these serves the function of a logic gate. One input, two possible outputs: 0 or 1, on or off, in or out. At the heart of the computer, and everything the computer generates, is a humble door.

Of course, not all doors are meant to be opened. Some are there to remind you that none shall pass, or that the pleasure, even necessity, of exit is but an illusion.

Rome- doorway

Chalk door in Rome. Photograph by Zach Horton.

 

Other doors may be obliging, but serve to obscure the other side. Who will be brave enough to exit the known for the unknown? Contestants of Let’s Make a Deal had to ask this question of themselves. More lucratively, so do cat-burglars. I simply wonder who is behind each of those cold doors in the hotel hallway.

As I finish my Ph.D. and enter the academic job market, I’m thinking a lot about doors. That which they conceal, the thresholds they guard, and whether or not they lock behind you.

I discovered my favorite door by accident one day in Rome. Having thrown away my map, determined to wander aimlessly, I ended up on a narrow, unremarkable street with a solid wall lining one side. As I wiped the sweat from my brow, I noticed, with a start, that the wall had sprouted a head. It was made of the same red clay and jutted outward defiantly. A wall that refused to remain flat. I followed its gaze and discovered a second head, and then an ear, an eye, and a nose. I walked on, dumbfounded at the community of body parts embedded within this wall. Finally, I came to the door. And here, amidst this anthropomorphic wall, the door framed a question: what or who was behind this wall?

Rome- Artists house 6- doorway

Door to residence in Rome, Italy. Photograph by Zach Horton.

I considered ringing the off-kilter doorbell or intercom. I stood for nearly a half hour studying the clues provided by this threshhold. Finally, I turned and began to walk away.

A rusty creak rang out behind me. I spun just in time to witness the door opening by just a crack. A young Italian woman slipped out, carrying a handful of laundry. The door closed again, before I could make out any detail within. She walked in my direction.

“How is it,” I managed to ask in a blunt English that she might or might not understand, “that you came to live behind that door?”

She stopped, regarding me quizzically. “My father,” she finally said by way of explanation, “is an artist.” She smiled and continued away on her errand.

Why was it that this encounter affected me so sharply? Was it the incongruous presence of a human where there should only have been a silent door, waiting through the ages? Was it that the granting of my wish, to have experienced the inside behind this door, was accomplished only through a shift of modality, from the material to the symbolic? I had nothing but the word “artist,” a signifer, to show for my adventurous curiosity and humble patience. (This is, after all, within the purview of the door’s alchemical magic.) Or was it, quite simply, that in my phenomenological egocentrism I had forgotten that other great function of the door? To open, not to allow entry, but to facilitate an emergence?

Convergence

This blog existed for several years before I actualized it. It hurts to become. It also never ceases. As philosopher Gilles Deleuze reminds us, it is the traversing of the virtual, affirming difference and embracing potentiality, that is the hard part. The rest, however necessary to actually produce something, is about placing limits on the dimensionality, the freedom, of our concepts, our affects, and our bodies. This is one of the paradoxes of becoming: it requires a reduction of potentiality (actualization) at the same time that it requires the emergence of something new, something not determined by or derived from what was there previously. Deleuze and his collaborator, Felix Guattari, call this “miraculation,” because it seems to violate Newtonian conceptions of matter and involve some holy or unholy spirit, some dark magic to those who cleave to a determinist ontology. But we are getting ahead of ourselves here.

One day in October of last year my sister and I, on a quest for famously opulent cupcakes, found ourselves inside hip Georgetown confectionery “Baked and Wired,” in Washington, D.C. This establishment provides a large wall to customers as a surface upon which to exhibit their artistic inspiration, provided that such inspiration is representable in the medium of napkin art. This is the napkin that caught my eye:

Hurts to Become

Photograph by Zach Horton

It turns out that this is a quote by poet and LGBT activist Andrea Gibson. It is from her poem, “I Sing the Body Electric, Especially When My Power is Out,” a poem about the potentials of the body. Walt Whitman transposed through Andrea Gibson, delivered via concrete napkin to myself in a neighborhood that was decidedly not my own (I live in California, for starters). This is convergence.

My sister Jessica and I developed what we jokingly called “Convergence Theory” quite a few years ago, when we began to see our paths in life take shape retrospectively. Why, we wondered, do we suddenly feel that we are on the right track, that nothing we had done previously was superfluous, even though (a) we had never articulated or understood these paths previously, (b) had in fact had other goals in mind, since discarded, and (c) couldn’t tell, even at this latest juncture, where it all would lead. Somehow, the disparate interests, pursuits, skills, and experiences that we had accumulated had intertwined themselves and produced… something new. Convergence is another way of expressing becoming. It isn’t what can happen, as if guided by fate, despite the discontinuities represented by (a), (b), and (c). Rather, it is what results when these conditions are met.

We might say, along with John Lennon, that “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” But convergence theory goes beyond the acknowledgement that planning, shaping, and controlling are forms of hubris, and that the most interesting details emerge out of the cracks of identity, in the gaps and fissures of intentionality. Convergence follows from the interconnectedness of all things, an ecology of environment, body, and mind, but recognizes that all connections are not equal. Connections, assemblages, are assembled. They are produced through intra-action in the world. Everything connects to everything else given enough degrees of separation. All players of “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” know this.

Photograph by Zach Horton

Photograph by Zach Horton

I would like to suggest that convergence is fundamentally an affirmation of the emergent potential of a life lived experimentally. An experimental life is simply one that increases the potentialities of the bodies within a sphere of influence (one’s “own” included). Concretely, this means that no experience is irrelevant to a life as long as it increases future potential. If I learn to knit, it increases my future potential. If I encourage a friend to learn to knit, it will likely increase both her potential and the potential forms of our future interactions. Ditto for listening to other humans and learning about their experience of life. Even better: spending time with nonhumans and posthumans and attempting to understand how they experience the world. This all sounds intuitive enough.

And yet it flies in the face of Neoliberal culture. We are taught to visualize concrete goals and then work hard to achieve them. This approach reifies identity (it is assumed that the “I” who is to pursue these goals is unified, differentiated from others, autonomous and self-determining, and exists prior to and outside of the discursive structures that articulate these goals as choices to begin with) and elevates the individual above all other units and scales in order to suggest that all goals should be individualized. It also implies that life should be linear and goal-driven, with every potential action pre-judged on the basis of whether or not it moves one closer to the imagined end state that constitutes the “goal” in question. And finally, it assumes that goals, or static end states, are actually desirable to reach.

Convergence theory playfully challenges all of these assumptions. Here the “I” is undefined and amorphous: it may include one’s entire family, one’s near and dear assemblage of non-human entities from inert objects to electronic devices to animal co-habitants to colleagues. Because this “I” is always in a state of becoming, it does not exist prior to a series of actions and thus cannot articulate a coherent “goal” or imagined end state. Any attempt to do so is foolhardy and illusory at best, and dangerous and destructive at worst. In other words, the “I” only emerges through the series of experiences and transformations that constitute it as a subject. Because this conception of identity is fluid, fixed states are anathema to it, symptoms of a breakdown of the creative process; certainly not goals to which we should aspire. Convergence, then, is not a linear path that moves one, step by step, closer to a desired end state, but rather a non-linear accumulation of potentials over time that open up new forms of becoming. These becomings are actualizations in the sense that they reduce a field of virtual potentials to concrete forms, but they must always be incomplete so that they continue to propel us forward into new paths, new connections, new combinations.

Photograph by Zach Horton

Photograph by Zach Horton

Stated simply, then, convergence theory holds that all experiences must converge upon something new and that the larger the difference between experiences, the greater the differential leap of becoming. The more varied and less linear one’s experiences, the greater will be the acts of becoming upon which they continually converge. The correlate here is that linear, goal-driven behavior produces minimal convergence. This is because convergence is a kind of short-circuiting, the crossing of wires across difference in order to produce yet more difference. Linear behavior produces minimal convergence because it is already nearly homogeneous: there is no difference to converge. One of the implications of convergence theory is that the more difficult it is to cognitively link one’s actions in advance, the more clearly one will be able to link them retrospectively as components of emergence.

This blog will be one small experiment in convergence. Here I will attempt to catalog some of my varied interests and experiences, mostly in textual and photographic form, as an exploration of the connections between them. In this way it must be not merely an excavation of pre-existing connections, but also, through the process of exploration itself, the production of new vectors, new directions.

The primary subjects of this blog will thus likely change. At this moment, though, I take the following to be my starting points: photography, film, ecology, philosophy, cultural theory, technological systems, open source, creativity, innovation, literature, energy conservation, and scalar mediation. (This last, which happens to be the subject of my PhD dissertation, will be explained in a future post.)

Where will we go from here?

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