Tracing the Ero-Tech in 2010: New Frontiers in Technology and Desire

Movies, books, and music from 2010 tapped into the genre of the ero-tech, where desire and technology coalesce in exciting and disturbing ways.

— By | December 29, 2010

Lee "Scratch" Perry in the studio

The studio must be like a living thing… The machine must be live and intelligent. Then I put my mind into the machine by sending it through the controls and the knobs or into the jack panel.Lee “Scratch” Perry

Automatic supersonic hypnotic funky fresh / Work my body so melodic / This beat flows right through my chest. — Ciara, “1, 2 Step

When Sarah Connor first tries to escape from Kyle Reese — her bodyguard baby-daddy from the future — in The Terminator, Reese recites a distinction between human and machine in order to woo her back into his arms. He quips: “Cyborgs don’t feel pain. I do.” Reese’s statement both comforts Sarah and increases her terror of the Terminator, a being that does not share her vulnerability. The cyborgs of James Cameron’s Reagan-era dystopia not only do not feel pain — they feel nothing at all. The consequences are disturbing. We learn that the machines become so intelligent that they overturn their original programming, emancipate themselves from human control, initiate global thermonuclear war, and — as if things couldn’t be worse — try to exterminate all human life in the radiated haze of the post-apocalypse. Apparently, creatures without feelings degenerate into systematic violence rather quickly.

Cameron’s portrayal of artificial intelligence captures a persistent fear that haunts much of our art and thinking about advanced technology in the post-war period: the fear of our helpless subjugation to the destructive potential of our mechanical and digital tools. But I’d like to point to another way to view our relationship to technology, one that focuses on our creative use of machines to produce sensual effects. While machines don’t feel, we certainly use them to construct and guide our own feelings. I’ll call this sphere of creative production ero-tech, from the ancient Greek words eros, for desire or love, and techne, for craft. This past year, the genre of ero-tech thrived in music, film, and literature.

Cameron already understood the sensual powers of ero-tech in The Terminator. There’s a brilliant scene when Sarah hides in the club Tech-Noir, where the forces of ero-tech, bumping out of the speakers in the form of pummeling new wave rock, come face to face with the destructive programming of the cyborg (death-tech?). This depiction of the supposed antinomy between the erotic and technological, as well as the subtle synthesis of the two, anticipated not only the Terminator sequel but also Cameron’s cinematic tour de force, Avatar, released just last December.

Avatar is the redemptive alter-future of The Terminator. While many critics have enthusiastically praised Cameron’s creation of the enchanting hyper-reality that is Pandora, they have torched the naĂŻve storyline of a white man’s colonial immersion into an indigenous peoples’ way of life. But Avatar is more than a dancing-with-wolves fantasy. Rather than a return to the so-called “primitive” or pre-technological, Avatar‘s redemption requires a technological absorption into nature.

The pleasures of plugging into Cameron's Pandora (film still from Avatar (2010))

Pandora is a virtual environment, not so much a primitive or indigenous one, as fellow Hydra writer Jose Moctezuma illustrated in quite lucid terms. So the untapped natural environment on screen is, as it were, one of artificial origins and made of artificial material, planned and put into effect by a team of merely terrestrial design experts. There’s a cautionary tale buried in Avatar regarding how we might use technology differently. Rather than using our technology to manipulate the natural world and its resources, we may instead choose to “plug into” and embody nature. The enlightenment dream of mature humankind gaining control over nature is replaced by a sustainable dream of harmonious interaction, which privileges the intensity and visceral inexhaustibility of life itself.

Other films of 2010 played with similar themes of plugging into the world — a world no longer clearly demarcated by determinate boundaries separating nature from artifice. Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void explored the seductive qualities of technology and its psychedelic effects on consciousness. The fluorescent lights, skyscrapers, and subterranean nightlife of Tokyo disorient the audience as much as the drugged out protagonist, Oscar, who stumbles through a DMT-inspired vortex of a night. After being shot by corrupt police in a barroom urinal, Oscar dissolves into a disembodied dream state where a montage of hypnotic visions and coagulated desires grasp towards coherency without ever reaching it.

Film still from Nolan's Inception (2010)

Similarly, in Inception, director Christopher Nolan pulled us into surreal architectonics, where the built environments of cities, cinema, and dreams merge seamlessly into warped hyper-realities on the screen. We never find out whether we’re plugged into DiCaprio’s mind or just to Nolan’s imaginative reality. David Fincher approached the theme of the virtual-real blend in less intoxicating but just as stunning terms in The Social Network.

Much of this year’s music, crafted from an array of digital software, analog equipment, and acoustic instruments, explored the psychedelic effects of ero-tech. Warbling bass, deconstructed melodies, and electric noise galvanize Flying Lotus’ foray into bio-digital sonic programming in Cosmogramma. The record wanders into cavernous musical territory, where the intimate reaches of self and outer stretches of galactic funk coalesce in prismatic forms. Flying Lotus continually utilizes the corporeal effect of the low end to disorient the body and rush bursts of blood to the mind. This is head music to its fullest. Cosmogramma teeters on listenability, continually rerouting directions and breaking away from conventional expectation. But if you can manage to stay on board, Fly Lo’s disquieting space odyssey soars and beckons to fertile and vital paths of sound.

Hypnagogic pop is ero-tech too. Washed Out’s album High Times, released at the cusp of the year, channels the natural rhythms of both moon and ocean into rolling bass lines and blistering synth melodies. The record progresses in the motions of an electronic lullaby, coaxing sun-soaked bodies into submission under its vibrant rays. There are darker edges to the technological spirit of the beat as well. Forest Swords pulls more from the miasmatic spheres of televised noise and bleached surfaces to craft something of a sublime dystopia in Dagger Paths. The hypnagogic sphere of sound taps into a somnambulant energy source that hums along in the belly of organic life, where electricity breathes without discrimination into machine and animal alike.

But perhaps the clearest vision of musical ero-tech is the pinnacle Chicago house, self-titled record from Virgo, reissued this year to a generation of fresh ears.  Emerging in Chicago in the late 1980s was a genre of dance music — culled in underground warehouse parties in districts across town wracked by the de-industrializing economy — that borrowed from the mechanical poly-rhythms of Detroit techno, the emotional resonance of local boogie funk, and the lineage of Motown soul. Synth arpeggios whirl around bubbling bass lines, laboring to magnetize the ear and hypnotize the body. What Virgo induces is a sort of technological automation which rises in its frenetic repetition to the level of a spiritual chant; robotic movements come to generate with each thrust a wave of erotic output. The dance of the listener can be bodily and sexual just as easily as internal and intellectual — what dub alchemist Lee “Scratch” Perry calls a mental dance.

Film still from Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927)

Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid also pursued the quest for emancipation explored in the history of pop and soul music chained to the rhythm. Cloaked in references to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Sun Ra’s afro-futurist arkestra, Monae plays the part of an R&B cyborg set on the path of humanity’s final liberation. The cyborg digs allow Monae to transgress stagnate gender and genre conventions that tend to circumscribe the artistry of black female songstresses. But her robotic enthusiasm often sinks into a flat performance, conceptually appealing but emotionally cold, not quite rising to the ero-tech mastery of Grace Jones.

More successful than Monae in programming life into machine music are Emeralds and Actress, who let fluctuating rhythm dissolve into electric surges of energy, plugging us into a state of guzzling wonder.

Emeralds – “Now You See Me” (from Does It Look Like I’m Here? (2010))

Actress – “Maze”  (from Splazsh (2010))

Music journalist Dave Tompkins explored the relationship between machine and voice in his book on the history of the vocoder, How To Wreck a Nice Beach. Tompkins, in his inimitably bugged out writing style, cleverly traces the creative usurpation of the vocoder: Originally built as a tool to scramble voices during World War II, the vocoder became the musical weapon of choice for avant-garde musicians experimenting with electronic pop compositions in the 1970s, and the feverish electro of black funkateers in the 80s. These musicians more or less learned how to play a weapon in order to disembody their voices into a sonic buzz and croak–the sounds of a humanized robot.

Kode9, or rather, the British philosopher Steve Goodman who moonlights as both a dubstep producer and the labelhead of Hyperdub, explored similar reconfigurations of war technology for creative purposes in Sonic Warfare: Sound, Effect, and the Ecology of Fear. What many military sonic weapons aim to produce, a crowd controlling dread in an audience, is deconstructed and reimagined in the use of acoustic force in dub, jungle, drum n’ bass, and other bass heavy electronic music.

Gary Shteyngart’s satirical and moving novel Super Sad True Love Story also criticizes what seems the automated movement of the tech-era towards Deleuze’s nightmarish warnings of the society of control. Super Sad takes place in the New York of the near future where books are smelly novelty items, hipsters are pushed out to Staten Island, and America’s collapsed economy culminates in a police-state takeover. Handheld computer-phones called apparats guide the desiring and status seeking lives of the story’s inhabitants, an unwieldy bunch wracked by loneliness and a festering urge to live forever.

Samsung's i8250 "Beam" cell phone, released in 2010.

In Super Sad, an unlikely love story develops between an older Russian-Jewish, second-generation man, a comedic alter-ego of Shteyngart himself, and a recent college graduate Korean-American girl. Strangely, the sexual attraction the man has for the girl seems to parallel the sort of seduction new, dazzling technology tends to induce on its consumer body. Her body is clean and young, sexy and virile, just as our machines glow with an aura of possible intimacy and indulgence.

How far will the eroticization of technology go?

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