|Dr. Andrew Wood
Office: HGH 210; phone: (408) 924-5378
|Image borrowed from Streamlined Prints||William Gibson's
short story illustrates how popular culture and public life are heterogeneous;
they are not stable, solid, immutable forces. Rather, our notion of public
life includes bits and pieces and fragments of many alternative visions
of ideal human interaction. The title refers to Hugo Gernsback, an early
twentieth century pulp fiction editor whose bold and vivid stories shaped
our collective imagination of the future.
The 'continuum' refers to a conceptual space, an alternative universe that exists alongside our own - and occasionally intersects with our 'real' world. This space includes a range of probabilities from the most concrete and sensible to the most abstract and fantastic visions of public life. The Gernsback Continuum is a broad arc of intersecting futures with alternative implications for public life. We can visit this continuum through various means; some are legal and safe, others illegal and dangerous. The protagonist in Gibson's short story visits the continuum through a mixture of imminent mental breakdown and amphetamine psychosis. The plot begins when the narrator is contracted to photograph examples of art deco architecture along the West Coast. Art Deco refers to a style that featured bold shapes, zigzag and geometric elements, vivid colors, and artificial materials; the movement was popular in the mid-twenties and lasted through the 1930s. One offshoot of deco was a movement called Streamlined Modern that featured sleek, futuristic shapes exuding the power of technology over nature.
Note: You can learn more about deco by visiting a page I maintain, South Bay Deco. You'll find bus depots, auto courts, and a special essay on and Miami Deco - even a Dictionary of Deco Terms. For a California perspective, check out LA Streamlined.
|Postcard view of Futurama||As our narrator
follows the 'stations of [his] convoluted socioarchitectural cross', he
loses contact with the artifacts of his 'real' world. The public life
of his 1980s America, with its crime, nuclear threats and pending environmental
collapse, seems to be replaced by fragments of an alternative 1980s-that-wasn't.
He catches odd visions and rough hallucinations like a huge flying
wing-liner that looks like it might have appeared on one of Gernsback's
pulps. Concerned for his sanity, our narrator contacts a friend who makes
his living interviewing and writing about individuals and groups who've
slipped the permeable membrane of probability - between the reality of
our collective public life and the madness that collects where our world
intersects with alternative universes. We learn that madness might merely
be a symptom that follows our brush with semiotic ghosts. These
phantoms are artifacts - buildings, postcards, song lyrics, comic books,
speeches, pieces of wall paper - fragments of a collective imagination
of public life that has been forgotten, but not fully eliminated.
Our narrator decides that he's had enough of these semiotic phantoms, but not before visiting the Gernsback Continuum one last time. In a dream state, he passes beyond his public life, into the world imagined by streamline modern architects, city planners, and pulp fiction novelists of the 1930s. There, he witnesses an alternative 1980s in which the bold visions of tomorrow - vast, gleaming, spotless cities - came true. In this continuum, the virtues and promise of technology were never perverted by war and disillusionment. The technocracy of plastic, lucite, and stainless steel never mutated into the stark totalitarianism of Hitler's Germany and the subtle tyranny of America's suburbs.
|Image from Frank Wu's Frank R. Paul Gallery||Our narrator is
drawn to this alternative vision of public life, but he fears it too.
He senses that it rests upon a dangerous foundation whose apparent optimism
hides a kind of police state. In this world, people seem robotic, hollow,
fake. Are all people in this utopia white, wealthy, and happy? What kind
of mechanism has so neatly eliminated any trace of difference from this
world? Whatever machine or policy that accomplished this shadow-less holocaust
must be terrifying, indeed. Our narrator tries to will himself out of
this continuum, but finds that his return from the desert to Los Angeles
merely showers him with fragments of this half forgotten world. Some cities
and places and artifacts, it seems, possess the power to intersect with
alternative continuums of public life. At the end of the story, our narrator
returns to New York, deciding to drench himself in the troubling artifacts
of his real life - violent pornography, newspaper accounts of crime, the
detritus of a broken society. He decides that his real world is much better
than a perfect society that that can deprive him of his humanity.
This story illustrates a central question in our course. How might we critique our assumptions about public life without stepping out of our continuum of places and values and texts? Perhaps we must occasionally visit other rhetorical continuums to discern the shape and limitations of our own. Fortunately, we can enter the Gernsback Continuum pretty easily. If you've driven to LA, you might remember images from Gibson's short story, like this Coca Cola Bottling Plant. As a thought experiment, try this activity: Describe the alternative Tucson of Gibson's "Gernsback Continuum." Can you think of any semiotic phantoms in California that remind you of that Tucson-that-wasn't?