It is rather rare these days to discover art of such extraordinary creative genius that it leaves one impoverished for words. That rare moment occurred for me a couple of days back when I saw ‘The Ethical Governor,’ a short animation produced by the writer, musician and animator (or his preference: ‘electronic artist’) John Butler. It is the product of a sparkling imagination and technical virtuosity in which there are traces of Swift, Kafka, Huxley, Orwell, early Coetzee, and Philip K. Dick. Like the masters, Butler takes extant tendencies in society and brings them into sharp focus in works that combine social consciousness, perfect pitch irony, clever wordplay, subversive wit and spectacular visuals. He describes his art as ‘speculative fiction for the age of financialization’, and anyone who has delved into the world of CDOs, CDSs and SPVs will understand where he is coming from. Last year he told an interviewer:
I’m interested in human utility in the drone age. Human redundancy in the unmanned economy. I’m interested in the war between Finance and Humans.
I’m interested in the Universal Transaction Space we all now inhabit. […]
Speculative fiction is important because the future seems to be behind us, and nothing lies ahead. We’re just waiting for the next upgrade.
That is the essence of contemporary culture. It’s designed to disable the imagination.
Butler’s work is a commentary on the Enlightenment faith that scientific rationality sets us on a linear path to progress in which technology will help us overcome all barriers. This of course is precisely the kind of faith that brought us Systems Analysis, Game Theory, the idea of winnable nuclear wars, Rational Choice Theory, the idea of ‘consumer sovereignty’, the Revolution in Military Affairs, derivatives, securitization and the world financial crisis. But it is his subversion of the kind of anti-septic, hollowed out, neutral-sounding words, stripped of their emotive content, regularly deployed by the military and economists to describe the most awful phenomena in detached pseudo-scientific language which is the true genius of this animation. Long before the Rand Corporation helped institutionalize such language, Orwell wrote in his celebrated essay ‘Politics and the English Language‘:
Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
Referencing Orwell, David Bomwich writes:
Orwell’s insight was that the italicized phrases are colorless by design and not by accident. He saw a deliberate method in the imprecision of texture. The inventors of this idiom meant to suppress one kind of imagination, the kind that yields an image of things actually done or suffered; and they wanted to put in its place an imagination that trusts to the influence of larger powers behind the scenes.
The larger powers in Butler’s rendering are the Chamber of Commerce, and the (inevitable) battle ground is the homeland. If you find this too farfetched, consider the R2 mercenary units being trained for internal crowd suppression in the UAE — or the fact that in the aftermath of Katrina, the US deployed mercenary units, with names such as Instinctive Shooting International! (The US also briefly suspended the Posse Comitatus Act in 1999 to deploy the Delta Force in Seattle during the anti-IMF protests, when it briefly looked like things were getting out of hand). Today both the northern and southern borders of the US are monitored by Predator drones. And if you think the concept of an ‘Ethical Adaptor’ adaptor is pure satire, Butler tells me that the inspiration for his piece came from actual research being carried out at Georgia Institute of Technology among others.