Bugaboo (excerpt)

Paul Kelley

operetta — written here with a lower-case O which reduces in size and stature the already “little opera” the Italian word designates — assembles in the space of the art gallery the video-tape loop of the image, magni-fied, of a fly, projected on a wall, headphones, and an audio-recording loop of a portion of the soundtrack from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on which the computer HAL 9000 speaks and sings a song (a “ditty”) to the astronaut who is in the process of disconnecting the device. This pastiche of elements of differing kinds simply does not permit anything less than an intense presence of mind on the part of the spectator who stands before it (actually, in it), a thought which allows us to consider how much of the continuity of our day-to-day order involves our unseeing, our unhearing, our unthinking.

It is the emphatic lack of coherent, unified organization which, because immediately apparent, shocks us into an awakening. Placed bodily into its mise-en-scene, the spectator — no longer simply a spectator but a member, even despite his/her will, of its cast of characters — will be turned inside out. In the juxtaposition of the video-projection of an enlarged image of the fly so powerless1 and the snippet of the sound-track of a talking, singing computer taken from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey are entirely different orders of perception and cognition: the sheerly optical and the sheerly auditory, completely out of synch; “popular culture” (the Kubrick film) made virtually present in the hushed solemnity of the Art Gallery; the “natural” fly presented as an image by the technological apparatus, which though occupying a position of commanding presence, disappears from the viewer’s attention and awareness; the private, serialized listening (through headphones) and the collective, public viewing. The objects and the modes of these perceptions, apparently wholly unrelated to each other, tear the auditor—spectator in different — diverging — directions: he or she is led by the eyes to the accelerated, magnified fly, by the ears to the song a faltering computer “sings,” beholding, even touching, devices to which no first thought is given. Yet, by the simultaneity of their co-actuality, all these elements — tactile, audile, visual, virtual, and actual — are related — if only in an indeterminate manner. To arrive at an understanding of operetta, therefore, places the viewer on a path paved with associations which, though they may very well be elucidatable (they will proceed tropically, through metaphor, metonymy, antonymy, etc.), they will not (and cannot) be determinable in advance. The connections, should there be any, are not to be found by the spectator, as if remotely controlled; he/she will make them.

Where experience is concerned, the spectator is already at a loss. In fact, the work itself presents undeniable loss in the dying of a fly and the “dying” of a computer. Of death, there can be no direct experience. From its beginning, operetta is an ending that never ends but only re-begins, repeating endlessly ending(s) without finality — dying(s) devoid of death. Here the work of creation, ex nihi!o, works upon — and with — and against — nihilation. Thus its affinity with memory. Against the silent “fast-forward” of the fly is set the slowing down (to the depths) of the computer’s vocal presentation of an element in its “memory” (already a metaphor).2 We are listening to a “smart machine,” as it cites a moment from its history, its “genesis.” For the spectator with a memory that includes this memory, its metonymic quality will evoke associations not confined to Kubrick’s ambitiously gaumy epic meditation on the relation of “intelligence” (artificial and “natural”) and morality from the beginning to the end of time. (That this film has become a cult object is no real surprise, for it is a supply dump of overdeterminations.)

It is not only that HAL 9000 has a “bug” that has led it to outwit and to eliminate all but one of the astronauts on the spacecraft’s mission to Jupiter. Rather the binarist system of its calculationism is perfect and all- pervasive, a kind of Baconian lunacy, sanctioned by scientific reason, run wholly amok. As obvious as Poe’s “purloined letter” hidden in plain sight, HAL is invisible because it is everywhere, controlling every aspect of the spaceship’s operation. The flaw in HAL 9000 does not owe to its capa-bilities, but to that which it obviously lacks, also programmed, and which it can only simulate: memory, affect, history, the ability to change. The absence of these plays as great a role in its “being” as do the continual incremental adjustments which it effects.

Of equal importance, one may also recall the near total absence of women in this film, consumed as it is with aggression traced along an evolutionary line from early hominids to a death-dealing Übermaschine. HAL’S invocation of “Daisy” is, ironically, the only mention of a woman, absent, idealized in a piece of nineteenth-century American popular song from Tin Pan Alley which yokes the ideal Beloved to a simpler, because nostalgia-infused, technology from quaint, bygone days: a bicycle built for two, symbol of wedded bliss. HAL’S hymn to love is also a paean to technology, the fantasy of self-styled “beings” who are func-tionalized according to laws to which the world and all it contains must conform. That it occurs in the film as an appeal to the surviving astro-naut, Dave, who is in the process of disconnecting the computer for having engineered the physical nullity of his shipmates is not insignificantly the only quasi-dramatic moment in the film, which has eschewed nearly all the stock elements of narration (especially those of thematic romance å la “boy-meets-girl” type). As Dave disconnects HAL, the computer is attempting to produce evidence, in the form of this senti-mentally quaint song, that will deter Dave from his task. The slow, regulated breathing on the soundtrack we hear is that of Dave inside the safety of his space-suit; its relentlessly regular rhythm is in obvious contrast to the computer’s all-too-obvious anthropomorphic expressivity, not only in language but also in song. If the human astronaut sounds essentially machine-like, it is the computer’s appropriation of language and song that makes it sound fully, eerily, human: a “machine of loving grace,” as a poem by Richard Brautigan has it: gentle, confident, light-hearted. Against the appearance of Dave’s single-minded, “machine-like” pursuit of his task stands the apparent affect of a sentient, though disembodied, device. Here are the trappings of a recognizable divinity which, like Nietzsche’s madman, Kubrick solemnly declares dead.

If the approximation and assimilation of computers to humans makes them, as “sublime machines,” eligible for the tragic heroics which elicit pity and terror (as Kubrick may have intended), HAL’S little Liebestodes/ied provides the historical specificity which gums up the transcendentalizing works. For the song HAL sings, “Daisy Bell” (written by Harry Dacre), was introduced in 1892, as the United States was preparing itself to become a geopolitical force that would, through military and monetary means, establish a colonial reach covering much of the world (beginning in earnest with the “Spanish-American War” of 1898 and continuing into the establishment of further and further “Final Frontiers”). “Progress through technology” is the slogan of such expansion, from the big guns of the battleship Maine to the conflagrations of atomic bombs to the chemical scourges of Napalm to the deployment of “Stealth Missiles” and “Smart-Bombs.” Aristotelian pity and terror are not just psychological but political notions.4 In the real global drama of power, however, their order is reversed: first the terror; only afterwards, when the bombardments have done their infernal work, pity from the destroyers for the anguished survivors whose world they have destroyed, a gone world which henceforth can be only remembered — and imagined.

If there can be discerned in operetta a lightness of touch peculiar to that form of musical drama, that touch might owe as much to the delicacy and the fragility of that which is touched than to any canonical requirements of contemporary art practice. The “lightness” here is not only that of yet another of the human comedies of redemption attained through the practice of spectacular oblivion, the monstrous forgetfulness of the past and the present offered in a song-and-dance distraction, for distractions reflect, as in a distorting mirror, that from which they turn. The “light-ness” of operetta is the touch of a hand laid on something very dark indeed: the ways in which our perception, thoughts, imagination, memory, and forgetfulness are tooled. As a work which relentlessly figures death, refusing to let death die, operetta is a work of mourning. It cancels death’s cancellation of meaning. Mourning is indissociable from imagination, for it is not just the loss of that which was, but also the loss of the possibilities of that which was, that give rise to it. Because the imagination is not sacrificed to reason writ-large, because it is not sacri-ficed to calculation and calculation’s idols, because it is not sacrificed to amnesia’s instruments, it continues, exposed, always unsafe: risking the irrecoverable loss of meaning. With imagination is sought the creation of that which as yet has no representation, that which is, as yet, unrepre-sentable. For the imagination is not content to remain in the circle of representations, neither imagistic nor linguistic. Rather, it re-represents them, re-creates them and their conditions. Beyond the bounds of the repressive function of institutionalized discourse(s), imagination’s freedom is easily mistaken for foolery, non-sense, a violation of the accepted order of meaning. The disruption which the imagination effects testifies to the otherness of what appears to be and reveals the illusion of the necessity of its appearing such. Thus it always effects a rupture in history, in time itself, a rupture not confined to the present but one which simultaneously opens the closure of the past, transforming the finality of the it-was to the conditional it-might-have-been, finding in the past the possibilities intrinsic to it which progress has occluded and scotomized. Against all the powers of forgetfulness, memory becomes — that is, can be imagined to be — political not only when it commemorates all that was and is no more but also when it recognizes and retains the possibilities of what is no more. These, too, haunt — inhabit — the present — ours. They may very well be unrepresentable, but they are not unimaginable — or unthinkable.


  1. An image which recalls the insectoid gyra-tions of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, the literalization of the abject, anonymous func-tionary whose view of life is always from the lowest conceivable position.
  2. A number of those who have commented on operetta have drawn attention to this metaphor and to its having originated with actual insects causing breakdowns of early computers. What these commentators neglect is another curiosity: the manner in which apparatuses of all kinds, but especially computers, are talked about is riddled with metaphors of organicism, even personification, e.g. “memory,” “booting,” “housekeeping,” and, of course, “language,” Equally, terms once applied exclusively to computers (which have “generations” and are said to “evolve”), for example, “down-time,” are now applied with alacrity to humans, Employees in the service sector are expected by their employers (a group not much given to irony) to be “customer-friendly.”
  3. “All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace,” published in the book of the same title, in the same year the film was released (1968).
  4. See Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, “On the Sublime,” ICA Documents 4: Postmodernism (London: ICA,1986), p.9.