Albert Camus Reads Richard K. Morgan: Unsaid Existential Absurdism

Humanity has spread to the stars. We set out like ancient seafarers to explore the limitless ocean of space. But no matter how far we venture into the unknown, the worst monsters are those we bring with us. – Takeshi Kovacs

What I purport to do in this paper is pick up two sci-fi works of Richard Morgan, Altered Carbon (teaser to Netflix series), the first of Takeshi Kovacs trilogy and sometimes a grisly tale of switching bodies to gain immortality transhumanism, either by means of enhanced biology, technology, or biotechnology, and posthumanism. The second is Market Forces, a brutal journey into the heart of corporatized conflict investment by way of conscience elimination. Thereafter a conflation with Camus’ absurdity unravels the very paradoxical ambiguity underlying absurdism as a human condition. The paradoxical ambiguity is as a result of Camus’ ambivalence towards the neo-Platonist conception of the ultimate unifying principle, while accepting Plotinus’ principled pattern, but rejecting its culmination.

Richard Morgan’s is a parody, a commentary, or even en epic fantasy overcharged almost to the point of absurdity and bordering extropianism. If at all there is a semblance of optimism in the future as a result of Moore’s Law of dense hardware realizable through computational extravagance, it is spectacularly offset by complexities of software codes resulting in a disconnect that Morgan brilliantly transposes on to a society in a dystopian ethic. This offsetting disconnect between the physical and mental, between the tangible and the intangible is the existential angst writ large on the societal maneuvered by the powers that be.

Morgan’s Altered Carbon won’t be a deflection from William Gibson’s cyberpunk, or at places even Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which has inspired the cult classic Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, wherein the interface between man and machine is coalescing (sleeves as called in the novel), while the singularity pundits are making hay. But, what if the very technological exponent is used against the progenitors, a point that defines much of Artificial Intelligence ethics today? What if the human mind is now digitized, uploaded and downloaded as a mere file, and transferred across platforms (by way of needlecast transmitting DHF, individual digital human freight) rendering the hardware dis- posable, and at the same time the software as a data vulnerable to the vagaries of the networked age? These aren’t questions keeping the ethic at stake alone, but rather a reformatting of humanity off the leash. This forever changes the concept of morality and of death as we know it, for now anyone with adequate resources (note the excess of capitalism here) can technically extend their life for as long as they desire by reserving themselves into cloned organics or by taking a leaf off Orwell’s Government to archive citizen records in perpetual storage. Between the publication in 2002 and now, the fiction in science fiction as a genre has indeed gotten blurred, and what has been the Cartesian devil in mind-body duality leverages the technological metempsychosis of consciousness in bringing forth a new perception on morality.

Imagine, the needle of moral compass behaving most erratically, ranging from extreme apathy to moderate conscience in consideration of the economic of collateral damage, with the narrative wrenching through senses, thoughts and emotions before settling down into a dystopian plot dense with politics, societal disparity, corruption, abuse of wealth and power, and repressively conservative justice. If extreme violence is distasteful in Altered Carbon, the spectacle is countered by the fact that human bodies and memories are informational commodities as digitized freight and cortical stacks, busted and mangled physical shells already having access to a sleeve to reincarnate and rehabilitate on to, opening up new vistas of philosophical dispositions and artificially intelligent deliberation on the ethics of fast-disappearing human-machine interface.

If, Personal is Political, Altered Carbon results in a concussion of overloaded themes of cyberpunk tropes and is indicative of Morgan’s political takes, a conclusion only to be commissioned upon reading his later works. This detective melange heavily slithers through human condition both light and dark without succumbing to the derivatives of high-tech and low-life and keeping the potentials of speculative fiction to explorations. The suffusive metaphysics of longevity, multiplicity of souls and spiritual tentacles meeting its adversary in Catholicism paints a believable futuristic on the canvass of science-fiction spectra.

Market Forces, on the other hand is where cyberpunk-style sci-fi is suddenly replaced with corporatized economy of profit lines via the cogency of conflict investment. The world is in a state of dysphoria with diplomatic lines having given way to negotiations with violence, and contracts won on Ronin-esque car duels shifting the battlefield from the cyberspace of Altered Carbon to the more terrestrial grounds. Directly importing from Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is Good”, corporates enhance their share of GDP via legal funding of foreign wars. The limits of philosophy of liberal politics are stretched on analogizing the widening gap between the rich and the marginalized in the backdrop of crime-ravaged not-so futuristic London. Security is rarefied according to economic stratifications, and surveillance by the rich reach absurd levels of sophistication in the absence of sousveillance by the marginalized.

Enter Chris Faulkner, the protagonist defined by conscience that starts to wither away when confronted with taking hard and decisive actions for his firm, Shorn Associates, in the face of brutality of power dynamics. The intent is real-life testosterone absolutism maximizing the tenets of western capitalism in an ostentatious exhibition of masculinity and competition. The obvious collateral damage is fissuring of familial and societal values born as a result of conscience. Market Forces has certain parallels from the past, in the writings of Robert Sheckley, the American sci-fi author, who would take an element of society and extrapolate on its inherent violence to the extent of the absurd sliding into satire. It’s this sliding wherein lies the question of the beyond, the inevitability of an endowment of aggression defining, or rather questioning the purpose of the hitherto given legacy of societal ethic.

With no dearth of violence, the dystopian future stagnates into dysphoria characterized by law and apparatus at the mercy of corporations, which transcend the Government constitutionally along rapacious capitalism. A capitalism that is so rampant that it transforms the hero into an anti-hero in the unfolding tension between interest and sympathy, disgust and repulsion. The perfectly achievable Market Forces is a realization round the corner seeking birth between the hallucinogenic madness of speculations and hyperreality hinging on the philosophy of free-markets taken to its logical ends in the direction of an unpleasant future. The reductio ad absurdum of neoliberalism is an environment of feral brutality masked with the thinnest veneer of corporate civilization, and is the speculation that portrays the world where all power equates violence. This violence is manifested in aggression in a road rage death match against competitors every time there is a bid for a tender. What goes slightly over the board, and in a pretty colloquial usage of absurdity is why would any competition entail the best of staff on such idiotic suicide missions?

Camus’ absurdity is born in The Myth of Sisyphus, and continues well into the The Rebel, but is barely able to free itself from the clutches of triviality. This might appear to be a bold claim, but the efficacy is to be tested through Camus’ intellectual indebtedness to Plotinus, the Neo-Platonist thinker. Plotinus supplemented the One and Many idea of Plato with gradations of explanatory orders, for only then a coalescing of explanations with reality was conceivable. This coalescing converges into the absolute unity, the One, the necessarily metaphysical ground. Now, Camus accepts Plotinus in the steganographic, but strips the Absolute of its metaphysics. A major strand of absurdity for Camus stems from his dic- tum, “to understand is, above all, to unify”, and the absence of such unifying principle vindicates absurdity. Herein, one is confronted with the first of paradoxes, in that, if the Absolute is rejected, why then is there in Camus a nostalgia for unity? The reason is peculiarly caught between his version of empiricism and monism. His empiricism gives accord to comprehensibility of ordinary experiences by way of language and meaning, while anything transcending the same is meaninglessness and hinges on the Plotinus’ Absolute for comprehensibility, thus making him sound a monist. Add to this contradiction is the face of the Christian God to appear if the Absolute were not to be rejected, which would then have warranted a clash between good and evil in the face of the paradox of the existing of the latter when God was invested with qualities of the former. Invoking modernism’s core dictum, Camus then, questions spontaneity in the presence of Absolute by calling to attention scholastic perplexity.

Having rejected the Absolute, Camus takes the absurd condition as a fact. If one were to carefully tread The Myth of Sisyphus, it works thusly: If a man removes himself, he destroys the situation and hence the absurd condition. Since, the absurd condition is taken as a fact, one who destroys himself denies this fact. But he who denies this fact puts himself in opposition to what is, Truth. To oppose the Truth, recognizing it to be true, is to contradict oneself. Recognizing a truth, one ought to preserve it rather than deny it. Therefore, it follows that one ought not to commit metaphysical suicide in the face of the meaningless universe. This is a major paradox in his thought, where the evaluative absurdity is deemed to be preserved starting from the premise that man and the universe juxtaposed together is absurdity itself. So, what we have here is a logical cul-de-sac. But, what is of cardinal import is the retention of life in mediating between the man and universe as absurdity in polarities. If this were confronting the absurd in life, eschatology is another confrontation with the absurd, an absolute that needs to be opposed, a doctrine that becomes a further sense of the absurd, an ethic of the creation of the absolute rule in a drama of man as a struggle against death.

It is this conjecture that builds up in The Rebel, death as an antagonist subjected to rebellion. The absurdity of death lies across our desire for immortality, the inexplicability of it, and negating and denying the only meaningful existence known. Contradictorily, death would not be absurd if immortality were possible, and existence as is known isn’t the only meaningful existence that there is. Camus is prone to a meshwork logic here, for his thought fluctuates between viewing death as an absolute evil and also as a liberator, because of which it lends legitimacy to freedom. For, it isn’t the case that Camus is unaware of the double bind of his logic, and admittedly he ejects himself out of this quandary by deliberating on death not as a transcendental phenomenon, but as an ordinary lived-experience. If the Myth of Sisyphus holds murder and suicide in an absurdist position by denying the transcendent source of value, The Rebel revels in antagonisms with Nihilism, be it either in the sense of nothing is prohibited, or the absolutist nihilism of “permit all” with a fulcrum on the Absolute. The Rebel epitomizes the intellectual impotency of nihilism. But due credit for the logical progression of Camus is mandated here, for any utopia contains the seed of nihilism, in that, any acceptance of an Absolute other than life ultimately leads to tyranny. If this were to be one strand in the essay, the other is exposited in terms of an unrelenting and absolute opposition to death. Consequently, The Rebel, which is the embodiment of Camus’ ethic cannot kill. To avoid any danger of absolutism in the name of some positive good or value, the absolute value becomes oppositional to death, and hence the Rebel’s ethic is one of ceaseless rebellion, opposition and conflict.

Now, with a not very exhaustive treatment to Camus’ notion of absurdity as there is more than meets the eye in his corpus, let us turn to conflation with Richard Morgan and justify our thesis that we set out with. We shall bring this about by a series of observations.

If antagonism to death is the hallmark of rebellion, then Altered Carbon with its special hard-drives called “Stacks” installed in the brainstem immortalizes consciousness to be ported across humans across spacetimes. Needlecasting, the process by which human consciousness in the format of data gets teleported suffers disorientation across human hardwares, if it could even be called that. Interestingly, this disorientation aggrandizes the receiver conflict-ready, a theme that runs continuously in Market Forces as well as in Altered Carbon. The state of being conflict- and combat-ready is erecting armies to quash down rebellions. To prevent immortality from getting exploited in the hands of the privileged, these armies are trained to withstand torture, drudgery, while at the same time heightening their perception via steganography. But where the plot goes haywire for Camus’ rebel is Richard Morgan’s can neutralize and eliminate. Thats the first observation.

On to the second, which deals with transhumanism. A particular character, Kovac’s partner Kristen Ortega has a neo-Catholic family that’s split over God’s view of resurrecting a loved one. The split is as a result of choosing religious coding, a neo-Catholic semblance being the dead cannot be brought back to life. In these cases, Altered Carbon pushes past its Blade Runner fetish and reflexive cynicism to find something human. But, when the larger world is so thin, it’s hard to put something like neo-Catholicism in a larger context. Characters have had centuries to get used to the idea of stacks begging the larger question: why are many still blindsided by their existence? And why do so few people, including the sour Meths, seem to be doing anything interesting with technology? Now Camus’ man is confronted with his absurd and meaningless existence, which will be extinguished by death. There are two choices to consider here: either he can live inauthentically, implying hiding from truth, the fact that life is meaningless, and accepting the standards and values of the crowd, and in the process escaping the inner misery and despair that results from an honest appraisal of facts. Or, he can take the authentic choice and live heroically, implying facing the truth, life’s futility, and temporarily, submitting to despair which is a necessary consequence, but which, if it does not lead to suicide, will eventually purify him. Despair will drive him out of himself and away from trivialities, and by it he will be impelled to commit himself to a life of dramatic choices. This is ingrained in the intellectual idea of neo-Catholicism, with Camus’ allusion as only the use of the Will can cause a man truly to be. Both Takeshi Kovacs in Altered Carbon and Chris Faulkner in Market Forces amply epitomize this neo-Catholicism, albeit not directly, but rather, as an existential angst in the form of an intrusion.

Now for the third observation. The truth in Altered Carbon is an excavation of the self, more than searching data and tweaking it into information. It admonishes to keep going no matter whichever direction, a scalar over the vector territorialization in order to decrypt that which seems hidden, an exercise in futility. Allow me to quote Morgan in full,

You are still young and stupid. Human life has no value. Haven’t you learned that yet, Takeshi, with all you’ve seen? It has no value, intrinsic to itself. Machines cost money to build. Raw materials cost money to extract. But people? You can always get some more people. They reproduce like cancer cells, whether you want them or not. They are abundant, Takeshi. Why should they be valuable? Do you know that it costs us less to recruit and use up a real snuff whore that it does to set up and run virtual equivalent format. Real human flesh is cheaper than a machine. It’s the axiomatic truth of our times?

In full consciousness and setting aside the impropriety above, Morgan’s prejudicing the machine over human flesh extricates essentialism, mirroring Camusian take on the meaning of life as inessential, but for the burning problem of suicide. This is a direct import from Nietzsche, for who, illusion (the arts, Remember Wagner!) lends credibility to life and resolves despair to some extent, whereas for Camus, despair is only coming to terms with this absurd condition, by way of machination in the full knowhow of condition’s futility and pointlessness. This fact is most brilliantly corroborated in Morgan’s dictum about how constant repetition can even make the most obvious truths irritating enough to disagree with (Woken Furies).

To conclude: Imagine the real world extending into the fictive milieu, or its mirror image, the fictive world territorializing the real leaving it to portend such an intercourse consequent to an existential angst. Such an imagination now moves along the coordinates of hyperreality, where it collaterally damages meaning in a violent burst of EX/IM-plosion. This violent burst disturbs the idealized truth overridden by a hallucinogenic madness prompting iniquities calibrated for an unpleasant future. This invading dissonant realism slithers through the science fiction before culminating in the human characteristics of expediency. Such expediencies abhor fixation to being in the world built on deluded principles, where absurdity is not only a human condition, but an affliction of the transhuman and posthuman condition as well. Only the latter is not necessarily a peep into the future, which it might very well be, but rather a disturbing look into the present-day topographies, which for Camus was acquiescing to predicament, and for Richard Morgan a search for the culpable.

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