Noortje Marres

Crawford & Edgar (eds)

Transit Lounge, Wake-Up Calls & Travellers

Is this a rip-off? A book that prides itself on being high-caliber cyberpunk can't avoid this question. In any case, William Gibson recognizes wholeheartedly. In his introduction to Transit Lounge, he dissuades the buyer from this suspicion in a relaxed and thorough tone. He greets the buyer with irrefutable arguments: a portable-sized book full of astounding images of the future, unscrupulously contemplated to their most far-reaching implications: What I'm saying is: you'll get your eclectic bigtime. I advise you to score. What’s strange is that the stream of speculations which follows Gibson’s pointed opening salvo is driven by the doubt of whether or not the cyber-representatives’ elegant digressions aren’t perniciously misleading. Gibson promises futurological spectacle, and then it all begins to gnaw. At regular intervals, the insight comes to the fore that techno-hallucinations serve primarily to numb our sense of reality.

This is more than a bad connection between marketing strategy and product. Transit Lounge bears all the hallmarks of a generation gap, or even of two. It is a compilation of interviews with and articles about the kingpins of cyberpunk and postmodern theory, compiled by the editors of the techno-cult magazine 21™C. The gap between the two generations is the gap between over-the-top prophecy and profound interpretation: the bigwigs pontificate on the approaching moment when humanity shall definitively ascend the techno-cosmos, while the editors frame all of this within question marks inspired by general disbelief, humanism and realism. But the idea isn’t that we see the gap as a symptom of pathological mutual discord; Transit Lounge is supposedly the product of a fruitful collaboration.

It is constructed as if it were bringing into position the various necessities for a flight to the future. The 'Cartographers’ Joyce, Debord and Burroughs supply the topographical maps of our intertextuality-beleaguered consciousness, while Sadie Plant, Baudrillard, Nicolas Negroponte, Donna Haraway and Gibson see to the 'Fuel’. Robert Anton Wilson, Timothy Leary and R.U. Sirius put 'Contraband’ in the suitcase, and McKenzie Wark and Mark Dery write postcards with practical tips. The observations of these 21tmC editors form a counterbalance to the previous generation’s somewhat exaggerated fantasies. We get intelligent interpretations of the info-hype disseminated by the multi-nationals, the metaphoric relevance of the clown, etc. The overall sense of balance is the result of a profuse concern for the unprepared reader, who is presumed to have only flipped through magazines until now, ignorant of the above-mentioned celebrities. This distance between the editors and the readers is indicative of a second gap. The former introduce the latter to the wondrous world of a high-tech future. In the style of a beginner’s course, the discussion of every forefather/mother is prefaced by an explanation of why he/she, from a philosophical or technological perspective, was well ahead of his/her time, and what an unbelievably charismatic personality he/she possesses. We learn why it is wise to taste of their intellectual fruits. The implosion of time and space, the impending hegemony of silicone life-forms; these are the kind of ideas that are supposed to be the radical implications of the electronic revolution. Then one of the most important phases of Transit Lounge’s educational design begins, namely the warning, but we shouldn’t forget that... The introduction to cyberpunk’s collective unconscious is organized in such a way that the newcomer can simultaneously experience the adventure of free association and arrive at critical contemplation.

This gap between the pioneers and the interpreters is supposed to be in the reader’s best interest. And insofar that the reader is in fact ignorant, this is indeed the case. But along the way, the allocation of tasks has the peculiar consequence of having predictions of the future come to be rooted in the past. Transit Lounge means to illustrate the intersection where the superhuman takes over the human, but the book turnes it upside down. The post-thinking that sees complete liberation and immortality already realized in digital technology is overtaken by the still-unrealized ideals of humanism. According to McKenzie Wark and Mark Dery, we need to approach visions of the post-human as retro-futurism, since extravagant speculations on the future, in and of themselves, are now superannuated. More than anything else, they inspire a sense of nostalgia for obsolete tomorrows: I want to believe, I really do, but... information technology, punk-rhetoric included, is corporate nowadays. And thus euphoria over the total design of nature and culture is ultimately unrealistic, since it ignores all of the economic discrimination in the meatworld. Wark sees in the visions of aged men an instrument for bringing contemporary trends of technophobia and techno-hope into focus. The watered-down excuses for a trip à la McKenna have now been incorporated as a mainstream use of free time. As such they feed our sociological insight.

Dery and Wark give Transit Lounge form as a zone in which antiquated images of the future are evaluated from a critical humanist perspective. In the articles by Kathy Acker, R.U. Sirius and Adam Lucas, it’s more a question of an uncomplicated fascination and heartfelt admiration for the inheritance. With a retrospective exhibition on the intertwined worlds of cyberpunk and postmodernism as the goal, eclecticism is rightfully the point of departure. The only thing is that this approach deprives Transit Lounge of a specific vision. It offers a string of insights which only intuitively have anything to do with one other, and which primarily serve as initiatives towards reflection: with the inserting of technology into the body, the borders which transcendental philosophy imposed on the possible come to expire (performance artist Stelarc). By saying farewell to metaphysical rêverie, we can finally recognize the borders of the human capacity for transformation (Dery). This kind of summing up of possible approaches leads to a fairly vague whole, which is the major downfall of introductory courses. But in order to involve readers in the cyber-discourse, it’s an extremely effective method, and that’s what is seems Transit Lounge is after. Blade Runner is a great movie! Bruce Sterling is a genius. Frankenstein is a contemporary figure. With these kinds of observations, it’s hard not to become curious, or at least not to nod approvingly.

The critical commentaries of Wark and Dery are supposed to keep this cyberpunk package’s dangerously giddy tendencies in check. Which begs the question of whether their cyber-humanism (Wark even feels compelled to seek support in Habermas’ theorem on the legitimatization crisis) isn’t specifically a result of Transit Lounge’s slacker character. As I see it, their chronic notion of the cyber-discourse’s frivolity has everything to do with the fact that Transit Lounge has been cut up for easy digestion. Of course it’s true that the French thinkers’ and American writers’ belief in the limitless adaptability of the world still calls for sober objection. But via the popular, non-committal tone of Transit Lounge, it assumes the form of a warning which is mainly meaningful as a footnote. Retro-futurism is inherently receptive. The great masters monopolize the conversation, which is understandable considering Transit Lounge’s approach; they fulfill their role as attention-grabbers.