– Autumn/Winter 2011

Semiotic Ghosts: Science Fiction and Historicism

Peio Aguirre

In William Gibson’s short story ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ (1981), a photographer (the narrator) is commissioned to illustrate a coffee-table book about North American architecture of the 1930s, to be published under the suggestive title The Airstream Futuropolis: The Tomorrow That Never Was.1 Excavating the architecture of the so-called ‘American Streamlined Moderne’, full of chrome surfaces and buildings inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), the narrator is haunted by what he calls the ‘semiotic ghost’: hallucinations of unrealised futures — an airplane that was ‘all wing, like a fat symmetrical boomerang with windows in unlikely places’ or ‘fifth-run movie houses like the temples of a lost sect that worshipped blue mirrors and geometry’.2 Gibson used this concept to describe the science fiction imagery that permeates Western culture — that is, ‘bits of deep cultural imagery that have split off and taken on a life of their own’. More precisely, Gibson’s some-what satirical criticism drew both on various modernist movements (which he labelled ‘futuroids’) and on the 1920s-esque fake technology featured in sci-fimagazines such as Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories. Gibson’s version of a futuristic pop ghost echoes that ‘old-fashioned future’ that Bruce Sterling, Gibson’s cyberpunk peer, coined in the title of one of his books to describe the time-space shifts that tend to present the past as science fiction and science fiction as past.3 ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, as a hilarious compilation of sci-fitropes, also managed to short-circuit the categories historically assigned to the genre, and functioned as a critique of its own aesthetic clichés. For this and other reasons, the story is seen as inaugurating

  1. William Gibson, ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, Burning Chrome, New York: Arbor House, 1986. Hugo Gernsback (1884–1967) created the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, in 1926. Gibson’s story is reprinted in Bruce Sterling (ed.), Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology New York: Arbor House, 1986. 

  2. W. Gibson, ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, op. cit., p.27.

  3. See B. Sterling, A Good Old-Fashioned Future, New York: Bantam Spectra, 1999. 

  4. Additionally, Gibson, in his ‘Sprawl series’, lays the ground for the use of a new technology that is happening in an unspecified future, one intimately connected to our modern condition. See the trilogy of Neuromancer (New York: Ace Books, 1984), Count Zero (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1986) and Monalisa Overdrive (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1988), as well as Burning Chrome, op. cit.

  5. Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford / Massachusetts, 1996, p.49. Emphasis Eagleton’s. In this book, Eagleton explores some of the ambivalences, histories and fallacies of postmodernism. About this tendecy of over-historising he also sees the implied inner contradictions: ‘The impulse to historicise capsizes into its opposite: pressed to the point where continuities simply dissolve, history becomes no more than a galaxy of current conjunctures, a cluster of eternal presents, which is to say hardly history at all.’ Ibid., p.46. 

  6. T.J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999, p.2. 

  7. Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essays on the Ontology of the Present, London and New York: Verso, 2002, pp.35–36. 

  8. See F. Jameson, Posmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991.

  9. See F. Jameson, Posmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991.

  10. B. Sterling, ‘Atemporality for the Creative Artist’, presented at the conference ‘Transmediale 10’, Berlin, February 6, 2010. Available at http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2010/02/atemporality-for-the-creative-artist (last accessed on 2 August 2010). 

  11. Ibid.

  12. W. Gibson, Zero History, London: Penguin, 2010, p.116.

  13. F. Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, London and New York: Verso, 2005. 

  14. W. Gibson, Zero History, op. cit., p.21. 

  15. ‘Style and Pastiche’, Carol Bove and Bettina Funcke in conversation, Parkett, issue 86, 2009, pp.92–93. Besides this exploitation of the narratives of the past, there is in recent art practice an exploitation of all those lost futures that never existed – semiotic ghosts them too, narratives in the form of unrealised utopias and science-fiction scenarios of thwarted pasts. In this regard, I think especially of the utopias of the Eastern Bloc countries, which have returned in a modernist retro-futurism in which David Maljkovic is an accomplished expert.

  16. F. Jameson, ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’, The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983–1998, London and New York: Verso, 1998, p.10.