The Warm and Consuming Flicker

Terminal BoredomCover of 'Terminal Boredom' by Izumi Suzuki

Izumi Suzuki
2021 in English translation

Suzuki’s sci-fi is not hard. It has little interest in the technical details of her future worlds, in speculating on the theories that might have made them. She explores softer sciences, her narratives moving dreamily through fragmented spaces, world-building abandoned, like the people she describes, barely enough infrastructure thrown up to support their uncertain interaction.

This vagueness with regard to detail is part of what allows the stories to still appear as of the future, and therefore to speak to the present. Suzuki’s explorations of the effect of a secular, consumer culture spread by mass media feel remarkably contemporary.

We live in a flood of images, every other structure merely the occasion for a facade that opens into another world – the bright future of the next purchase, a better you advertised incessantly. For many of us work consists in the sorting of symbolic images on a screen, a process broken off in order to engage in a leisure of images: cinema, TV, browser, app. Even when the world itself interests us we prefer to frame it in the phone’s camera, already imagining it as the past of a future memory.

I end up putting a frame around everything I see … It makes it seem fresh, helps me relax as a viewer … That really wasn’t staged, huh. Where are the TV cameras? I want my mum to see this.

This fantasia becomes exhausting. A fantasy is only an escape when it can be returned from, rarely at it’s root a desire to escape reality altogether – just this reality right now. When the possibility of return is lost then so are we, in an endless circle of images, or not even a circle, there being now no reference point from which to establish a pattern, only chaos. Pure fantasy is not a place of rest, but of restlessness.

There are no actively good feelings, just a passive, ambiguous contentment.

Depressive Hedonia

A term for this restlessness might be ‘depressive hedonia’, a coinage of the late cultural commentator Mark Fisher. He saw it as the condition of a society in the grip of ‘capitalist realism’, also known as TINA: There Is No Alternative. In much of the world, even once radical political parties have accepted that the rich rule and all that remains is to decide whether more or fewer crumbs should fall from the capitalist table.

The absence of any political project, any utopian ideal to aim for, might lead to classic depression, and its symptom ‘anhedonia’: the inability to feel pleasure. But if capitalism deadens any sense of active engagement in society, it provides in compensation the teasing promise that one day you might attain all that you dream of – just believe and work that bit harder – in its endless presentation of the good life that can be had by spending money. In Fisher’s own words:

Depression is usually characterised in terms of anhedonia, but the state I’m referring to is constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as it by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure. There is a sense that ‘something is missing’ – but no appreciation that this mysterious, missing enjoyment can only be accessed beyond the pleasure principle.

Photograph of electronic billboards at Piccadilly Circus
By Jimmy Baikovicius – Flickr: Open Happiness, CC BY-SA 2.0 (Crop of original image)

We live in a constant stream of inconsequential information, simultaneously soothing and anxiety-inducing, putting off any reckoning, turning a blind eye to challenge, to difficulty, and therefore letting life escape from us. A condition we cling to even while its futility gnaws us from within.

Nothing eases the boredom, of course … It’s not that I like the content of the programming itself. So much of it is total trash. I just enjoy the feeling of sitting there spacing out in front of the TV set. Because I don’t have to be active. Doing anything of my own volition is so painful that I can’t handle it. If I can just avoid that pain, that’s enough for me.

What was the effect of TV in the worlds of Suzuki is intensified by the smartphone in ours. But the world as spectacle is not a purely technological phenomenon: it is also, as Fisher points out, political. We are increasingly used to seeing the world as though the audience in an arena. It is not for us to act in the world, the world is acted upon by officials, high-viz vest wearers, state functionaries, corporate sponsors: it is the canvas that commerce paints on for our pleasure. We vote at the prescribed times for those we’d like to act for us.

Voter turnout’s gone up, though. Now that all you have to do is sit in front of your TV and press a button for your favourite celeb.’  ‘But they don’t even publicly announce which politicians the celebrity delegates choose with the votes they get.’

We are distanced from the world by its privatisation. It is owned, and the owners decide what it will be for us. At the endpoint of this there is no longer any commons, no public realm, merely individuals processing through a theatre. All the world’s a stage and all the people merely it’s audience.

They … had a total faith in society. Which is I guess why he committed suicide – he actually believed his death might have some kind of effect. Talk about optimistic.

When is a War not a War?

It was the burgeoning, relentless, ruthless, bewildering stream of information, obscuring reality to the point that on those occasions it emerges from the flood we no longer know how to tell it apart from its images, that Baudrillard invoked when he pointed out that the Gulf War did not take place.

By this he meant two things: one, that the first rolling news war was so set about by commentary on what might happen, what could be inferred as happening from the propagandistic newsreel of either party, and on the meaning of what then had happened, that the actual events were buried deep, so deep as to perhaps be inaccessible.

This may appear hyperbolic, but consider George Bush Jnr’s 2003 declaration to watching cameras that major combat operations in the second Gulf war were over. Followed by the 2010 official end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq. And then the 2021 end of the combat mission in Iraq. This is the projection of The War over war, resulting in the staged and stagy nonsense of declarations of the end of The War at times when war continues unabated. Only The War moved smoothly from Shock and Awe to the end of combat operations, whereas war never began with Shock and Awe, which prompted only massacre or retreat. Instead guerrilla war started to bite once the standing armies ceased their barking.

Baudrillard’s second meaning was that the First Gulf War was not a war in any traditional sense. The outcome was inevitable, and both parties knew it. On encountering the Iraqi army’s dug in positions, the U.S. fixed shovels to their tanks and simply drove over them, filling the defences with sand and burying many Iraqis alive.

For all I know, we could have killed thousands,” [said] Col. Anthony Moreno, commander of the brigade that led the assault … ‘What you saw was a bunch of buried trenches with peoples’ arms and things sticking out of them.

The imbalance of military power was such that the U.S. could massacre its opponents without even noticing. As Baudrillard put it, ‘For the Americans, the enemy does not exist as such. Nothing personal.’ The Encyclopaedia Britannica cites ‘estimates of Iraqi military deaths … from 8,000 to 50,000. Allied casualties, by contrast, were remarkably light. Just 147 U.S. personnel and 47 British troops were killed in action’. These images, of Iraqi military deaths, somehow escaped us. Baudrillard again:

Never any acting out, or passage to action, but simply acting: roll cameras! But there is too much film, or none at all, or it was desensitised by remaining too long in the humidity of the cold war. In short, there is quite simply nothing to see. Later, there will be something to see for the viewers of archival cassettes and the generations of video-zombies who will never cease reconstituting the event, never having had the intuition of the non-event of this war.

Once the real event is over it is lost. There is no bringing it back, it cannot be reconstituted in its wholeness and immediacy. All that’s left is information and no possible permutation of that information will alchemise it into the reality of what occurred. This is the rabbit-hole of conspiracy theory – who really killed JFK? Is Elvis really dead?

When this casting of the information runes is confined to the past it can go on indefinitely, and perhaps harmlessly. The event itself is not going to return from the dead to confound speculation. When it is projected into the future we face two risks: that this projection forever overlays the reality of our lives, so that we fail to see anything beyond ourselves, living always at one remove; and that as the potentials of the future coalesce into the obstinately actual nut of the present we fail to see it coming until it smashes through the projection screen and strikes us dead between the eyes, the David to our phantasmagorical Goliath.

Pretend You’re an Actor

Suzuki’s stories speak of the post-modern self living among, as, spectacle. Her affectless, amoral, drifting teenagers sometimes suggest the recurring moral panic over disaffected youth turning to violence in their cosseted apathy. It is regularly shown that video games, video nasties, heavy metal, do not cause violence. It may be that the social relations they describe do.

The parallel between video game shoot-em-ups and remote operatives watching drone targets on a live video stream is obvious. But the connection is not that ‘shooting someone’ in a video game makes you a psychopath. Rather, that when life is presented to us as a video game, a spectacle, rather than an event viscerally participated in, it’s easier to deal death.

And this works two ways: the spectacle of violence can, to a degree, replace violence. The grim irony of the 6 January 2021 US Capitol building assault was that the reality TV president was capable only of a reality TV revolution. People were gathered to march on the Capitol Building by baseless social media chatter and turned out to have few other connections. There were no roots to it, no serious organisation or planning, an assumption that to be seen to enter the building would be enough and the rest would fall into place.

Reality feels like a TV show, and TV shows feel like reality. It’s like the boundary between them breaks down, like you’re living in a dream.

The attackers gave interviews to news reporters and filmed their own trespass, one woman live-streaming complete with an advert for her business, because their actions were an extension of the stories they told online, the spectacle become more real than reality, the importance of the event not what it materially changed in power relations and governance, but how its appearance affected the online culture wars.

Pretend you’re an actor.

Or, to return to Baudrillard:

We have neither need of nor the taste for real drama or real war. What we require is the aphrodisiac spice of the multiplication of fakes and the hallucination of violence, for we have a hallucinogenic pleasure in all things, which, as in the case of drugs, is also the pleasure in our indifference and our irresponsibility and thus in our true liberty. Here is the supreme form of democracy. Through it our definitive retreat from the world takes shape … But, ultimately, what have you got against drugs?

A Lone Eye Somewhere

Our retreat, though, is not definitive, and I have so far, for rhetorical effect, overplayed the power of spectacle, which, though itself real, can never wholly prevent us from reaching out and touching reality. Suzuki’s worlds, however, speak of just this solipsistic retreat into the warm and consuming flicker of screens.

She doesn’t evoke the hallucinatory riot of mass media images – many of her stories are remarkably placeless, vague and dreamy. Rather, she evokes the effect of their profusion and interchangeability, an effect of deadening homogeneity. The many images are so disconnected as to be only superficially distinguishable, their affect equal and so equally tepid.

Our organism calibrates to the constant yet unchallenging stimulation: just as can we tune out the difficult real world of work or family with a foreground of media images, we become able to tune out of the image stream, let it too fade into the background, to find ourselves… where?

In one of Suzuki’s stories.

No, I don’t want to be in anybody’s dreams. I want to go someplace where there’s nothing. … I want to keep on living. Forever. And that’s how it’s going to be. I’ll become a lone eye somewhere, floating, without consciousness.

Affect in Suzuki’s art resides in the dim sense that another reality might exist – if only in a dream – one where actions matter, where change is possible, where the unexpected occurs. And what is at stake for her characters, as for us, is whether this sense tips them toward hope or despair.

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