Arendt, automation, and the cybercultural revolution
The first Cybercultural Conference was held in New York in the mid-1960s and took as its subject cybernation and the evolving society. Focusing on cybernation and calls for the end of wage holding, it drew heavily on a report exploring the Triple Revolution of automation, weaponry, and rights. It brought together individuals from the liberal and radical left, unions and civil rights groupings, the new tech industry – and Hannah Arendt, who was a speaker at the conference. Arendt’s intervention set out arguments developed in her major work On the Human Condition to a committed audience with its own entrenched positions, at the moment of the cybernation scare. Against the cybernation optimists, she argued that the coming leisure society would not produce cultural flourishing but introduce a form of life characterized by deadly and endless passivity. This chapter considers Arendt’s paper, asks how it relates to other positions emerging at the conference, including those that demanded that attention be paid to the politics of transition, and uses it to refocus issues concerning media technologies as they arise in Arendt’s thinking more generally. An exploration of the stakes of the early cybernation debates, and of Arendt’s position within them, opens up questions of computation, leisure, and the end of work, finding new salience today as political questions around automation accelerate.
The Two Cultures debate produced a furore in the modernizing era of the early to mid-1960s. The scientist C.P. Snow’s diagnosis of a cleavage that should be healed between the sciences and the arts is still widely invoked. Less well remembered is that his protagonist F.R. Leavis also argued for the benefits of one culture; not the one arising out of a capitulation to technologically administered utilitarianism, but the culture he discerned within a tradition of community, largely lost in everyday life, but held in the English language and in its literature. This chapter engages with Leavis’ arguments. The mode of radical liberalism Leavis espoused in the journal Scrutiny in the early to mid-20th century produced a response to technology far from technological optimism, but also distanced from Marxist critiques of technocratic rationality. This radicalism is hopelessly tarnished by the chauvinistic nationalism that framed and constrained it, which became increasingly marked in later years. However, Francis Mulhern, amongst others, has convincingly argued for a more nuanced reading of Leavis and the ‘moment of scrutiny’, and this prompts a re-reading of Leavis’ thinking around the specifically technological and a reappraisal of the position he took at the time of the Two Cultures debate. The combinatory force of an attachment to nation, a distrust of technocratic forms of knowledge and its claims to universality, and a moment of technological expansion, has been felt in disturbing ways in recent years – notably around the new chauvinism of the Right.
This chapter explores singularity as a posited artificial intelligence future, with particular focus on the rise of various forms of post-human or anti-human being and native artificial intelligences, engaging with writings from three waves of science fiction, each of which judges various forms of life. Science fiction has long dealt in artificial intelligence, singularity, and the computational. Claiming a privileged relationship to the technological future, it explores, invents, and/or speculates on possible forms of life. Further, it can care about these lives in particularly intense ways, making it ideal grounds for exploring claims for and prospects for emerging forms of artificial being. Recognizing the tendency of utopian and dystopian accounts to reverse their charge, this chapter avoids polemical accounts (of artificial intelligence ‘life’ as simply for the good or as evil, for instance). The chapter explores aspects of the anti-computational, and considers judgements made on new forms of life, through the more ambiguous explorations of fictional future being in works by Gibson, Piercy, Mieville, and Rajaniemi spanning from the 1980s to the contemporary moment.
James Baldwin was a vocal critic of Hollywood, but he was also a cinephile, and his critique of film was not so much of the medium itself, but of the uses to which it was put. Baldwin saw in film the chance to transform both politics and art—if only film could be transformed itself. This essay blends readings of archival materials, literature, film, and print culture to examine three distinct modes in Baldwin’s ongoing quest to revolutionize film. First, I argue, literature served as a key site to practice being a filmmaker, as Baldwin adapted cinematic grammars in his fiction and frequently penned scenes of filmgoing in which he could, in effect, direct his own movies. Secondly, I show that starting in the 1960s, Baldwin took a more direct route to making movies, as he composed screenplays, formed several production companies, and attempted to work in both Hollywood and the independent film scene in Europe. Finally, I explore how Baldwin sought to change cinema as a performer himself, in particular during his collaboration on Dick Fontaine and Pat Hartley’s documentary I Heard It Through the Grapevine (1982). This little-known film follows Baldwin as he revisits key sites from the civil rights movement and reconnects with activist friends as he endeavors to construct a revisionist history of race in America and to develop a media practice capable of honoring Black communities.
James Baldwin’s arrest in Paris in December 1949 gave birth to his perfect storm. His ten days in Fresnes jail weakened him physically and emotionally. He made it out, but upon release he was mired in self-doubt and enveloped in a bout of depression. He returned to his hotel, ready to try to get back to his life, however daunting that effort would be. The hotelier’s demand that he settle his bill, and do it quickly, awakened his obsession with suicide. He simply could not handle one more obstacle in his path; he chose to kill himself in his room. Ironically, he saved his life when he jumped off a chair with a sheet around his neck. In a matter of seconds his death wish was replaced by his equally obsessive need to write, witness, think, party, drink, challenge, and love.
The distinguished critic Professor Cheryl A. Wall (1948–2020) was the
Board of Governors Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English at Rutgers
University, New Brunswick. Her path-breaking scholarship in two highly
influential monographs, Women of the Harlem Renaissance (1995)
and Worrying the Line: Black Women Writers, Lineage, and Literary
Tradition (2005), helped to ensure that twentieth-century Black
women writers were recognized and valued for their power, genius, and
complexity. Her most recent book, On Freedom and the Will to Adorn: The
Art of the African American Essay (2018), places the essay form at
the center of African American literary achievement. Throughout her long career
she supported and enabled Black students, and championed racial diversity and
gender equality at every level of the university. An Associate Editor of
James Baldwin Review, she was the most generous and astute
of readers, as well as a wise editor. In this memorial section, fifteen
colleagues, former students, and interlocutors share their remembrances and
honor her legacy.
A Hollywood Love Story (as Written by James Baldwin)
D. Quentin Miller
Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work (1976) has proven challenging since its publication because readers and critics have trouble classifying it. The challenge may be related to a common feature of Baldwin criticism, namely a tendency to compare late career works to early ones and to find them lacking: the experimental nature of later works of nonfiction like No Name in the Street (1972), The Devil Finds Work, and The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985) does not square easily with the more conventional essays that made Baldwin famous in his early years. I attempt to reframe The Devil Finds Work not through a comparison to other Baldwin essays, but rather through a comparison to his fiction, specifically the novel Giovanni’s Room. I posit that a greater appreciation for Devil can result from thinking of it as a story, specifically the story of a failed love affair.
Filmmaker Karen Thorsen gave us James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket, the award-winning documentary that is now considered a classic. First broadcast on PBS/American Masters in August, 1989—just days after what would have been Baldwin’s sixty-fifth birthday—the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1990. It was not the film Thorsen intended to make. Beginning in 1986, Baldwin and Thorsen had been collaborating on a very different film project: a “nonfiction feature” about the history, research, and writing of Baldwin’s next book, “Remember This House.” It was also going to be a film about progress: about how far we had come, how far we still have to go, before we learn to trust our common humanity. But that project ended abruptly. On 1 December 1987, James Baldwin died—and “Remember This House,” book and film died with him. Suddenly, Thorsen’s mission changed: the world needed to know what they had lost. Her alliance with Baldwin took on new meaning. The following memoir—the second of two serialized parts—explores how and why their collaboration began. The first installment appeared in the sixth volume of James Baldwin Review, in the fall of 2020; the next stage of their journey starts here.
Baldwin, Racial Melancholy, and the Black Middle Ground
This article uses Baldwin’s 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” to consider that literary mode’s corollary in the 1990s New Black Cinema. It argues that recent African American movies posit an alternative to the politics and aesthetics of films by a director such as Spike Lee, one that evinces a set of qualities Baldwin calls for in his essay about Black literature. Among these are what recent scholars such as Ann Anlin Cheng have called racial melancholy or what Kevin Quashie describes as Black “quiet,” as well as variations on Yogita Goyal’s diaspora romance. Films such as Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) and Joe Talbot and Jimmy Fails’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019) offer a cinematic version of racial narrative at odds with the protest tradition I associate with earlier Black directors, a newly resonant cinema that we might see as both a direct and an indirect legacy of Baldwin’s views on African American culture and politics.
In this semi-biographical short story, the relationship between James Baldwin and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and its culmination in their epic confrontation in New York City on 24 May 1963, is portrayed through the lens of an unidentified fictive narrator. In the midst of heightened racial tensions, Baldwin has been tasked with bringing together a delegation of prominent Black US personalities to meet with the Attorney General and share their views on the measures necessary to combat segregation and racism. The meeting has barely begun before the naivety of the administration’s view of the national situation becomes clear, and the atmosphere in the room grows increasingly strained. “The Fire Inside” has never before appeared in print. An earlier version of the story was broadcast by Swedish Radio on 29 November 2019.