SEMIOTIC GHOST – THE RETURN OF THE POSSIBLE WORLDS 
By Matilde Cassarini

The continuum of Gernsback (1), by William Gibson, is part of the collection Mirrorshades edited by Bruce Sterling. This story kicked off cyberpunk thinking, structuring itself as an acknowledgement of the most negative elements of the past, invoking a new aesthetic for the 1980s. 

The first character of the story is a photographer who is commissioned to capture the futuristic American architecture of the 1930s and 1940s.  In the 1930s, while most American individuals were mostly inclined to survive, designers tended to have a populist attitude: people were given what they wanted, which was the future. 

In pursuing this project, the photographer focuses on the images and imagery America dreamed of seeing realized. Without realizing it, the photographer crosses a boundary and begins to see ghosts of the future: “I looked up and saw a twelve-engine machine resembling some kind of big boomerang, all wings, proceeding eastward with elephantine grace, so low I could count the bolts on its silvery surface. “(2) Gibson calls these apparitions semiotic phantoms, collective images that permeate Western culture, “fragments of this collective imagination that have detached themselves and taken on a life of their own, like the Jules Verne-like airships those old Kansas farmers keep seeing. “(3) 

Gibson criticizes all the various modernist movements – which he calls futuroids – that featured 1920s technology even in science fiction magazines like Amazing Stories. These echoes are a futuristic pop version of ghosts representing “An Old-Fashioned Future.” This title was coined by Bruce Sterling for one of his collections, in which he describes a shifting space-time and tends to present the past as science fiction and science fiction as the past. 

Today Gibson’s semiotic ghost has transcended the field of science fiction to shape our reception of cultural currents and understanding of history. It seems that the quest for knowledge is an endless proliferation of products through which history comes to us in the form of other texts or archival documents. Having unhinged the idea of an “objective” and concrete knowledge of history, the past becomes a narrative composed of endless other rejected texts. 

Thinking about the international style, the Bauhaus, the elements of minimalism, geodesic domes, the Citroën DS and post-punk, processed as semiotic ghosts, integrated and absorbed into our individual and the collective unconscious, no longer symbolizing the referents themselves but something popular. The iconic content of these real objects almost seems to break free from the source or referent, becoming a self-generating idea without belonging to anything specifically. It is important to understand the position these occupy as forms-concepts that speak to our idea of the past and its reception in the present. 

The idea is that cyberpunk can provide not only inventions of alternative utopian futures to the current situation but also a greater understanding of the past and how history can be collectively constructed and represented. 

History moves according to two different forms of time: the time of events and the one of processes. What we are used to calling history is actually a dialectical entity arising from the tension of these two forms of temporality; it is postmodern over-historicization that produces our continuous present. 

Our most recent past is the most enigmatic one for us, since 1989 a new history has begun that we find difficult to understand. It proceeds too quickly and immediately affects the whole planet. The change of scale takes us unawares, beginning the phase of critique of old concepts and old worldviews. For Marc Augé these are replaced by two worldviews (4): a pessimistic one in which the past is no longer the bearer of any lessons and another is triumphalist, there is nothing more to expect from the present, everything is accomplished. Between these two extremes, there is an ideology of the present that is characteristic of consumer society. It seems that under the tide of images, messages, instant communication and technologies individuals are left with the choice between conformist and passive consumerism and a radical rejection. 

We are immersed in a generalized spectacularization, unifying and representative element of a permanent theatre of war. A consequence of capitalist globalization, in which commodities and their passions are central and prevalent. 

We must remember that: “the spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relationship between people, mediated by images” (5). The images that populate the world in which we live are the result of cultural processes. They constitute the privileged way through which the powers of capitalist societies have managed to manipulate the desires and sensibilities of individuals. 

The photographer of the story exorcises his ghosts by getting lost in the Californian landscapes, perfect settings for a science fiction representation of history, a metaphor for the fragmentation and discontinuity of urban experience. 

Gibson’s critique of an ancient future becomes parodic when it aligns with the representation in which futuristic modernism seeks to take shape. His vision defines modernism as an unfinished project and as a grand bazaar filled with artefacts that sit well with the inexhaustible modernism itself, which creates the way for postmodernism. These obsolete artefacts have become semiotic ghosts today.

Modernist references in art and culture are not just a convention, but a privileged strategy, where anything seems to have just been produced, thought or transformed into something else by someone else, this is one of the great paradoxes of the supposed fecundity of historical content; the result of rethinking history as a hunting ground. 

The most widespread difficulty of contemporary culture lies in creating a form that refers to nothing else (the return or recurrent reinvention of past fashions is in fact one of the factors that has given rise to what we call postmodernism). Do we suffer from a nostalgia that considers the past always better than the present? 

Bruce Sterling was invited to question the concept of Futurity Now for the Transmediale.10 Festival in Berlin. The author proposes an alternative to the traditional historiographic vision: timelessness as a historical philosophical attitude. 

History books follow linear narratives, but web culture does not possess this dynamic, developing instead asynchronous, globalized and delocalized forms of communication. History in this perspective no longer has a single authoritative voice. The historical narrative is no longer a mapping of “objective” events, we look at a map in which the territory does not correspond. 

We live in an age of decadence and re-proposition of precarious structures, of new social inventions within networks, in a Technogothic world or in a Chic Favela where, instead of a cathedral of history and a utopian future, we will find rather a bizarre festival of history and the future” (6). 

According to Sterling, what is needed to face this moment is timelessness, a kind of agnosticism, a calm, pragmatic, serene skepticism. What makes an atemporal perspective more interesting is that it would put us in a position to elaborate new forms of history. 

As a philosophy of history, timelessness is not meant to last forever; it is only a contingent explanation for contingent times. The idea is to become multitemporal, rather than multicultural. 

Footnotes:

1 The reference is to Hugo Gernsback. Inventor, editor and writer considered the father of science fiction, he is the one who coined the term science fiction.

2 William Gibson, The Gernsback Continuum, Mirrorshades edited by Bruce Sterling, 2003 (original ed. 1986)

3 ibid. 

4 Marc Augé, Whatever happened to the future? From Non-places to Non-Time, Elèuthera, Milan 2009. 

5 Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Massari publisher, Viterbo, 2004 (original edition 1967) 

6 Bruce Sterling, lecture given at the festival Transmediale.10 at Kulturprojekte Berlin GmbH transmediale, Berlin, 2010