Of Slums and Biltongs

I just read Mike Davis’s “Planet of Slums” (from New left Review, interview on it here), and I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about this, in terms of what the world will look like in the years to come. His analysis of the population growth and shifts is remarkable, and I can’t imagine this growing urbanity of poverty isn’t going to have dramatic effects.

It’s such a pernicious combination: capitalist, neoliberal economics, combined with this postmodern condition of consumeristic simulacra. The result, clearly spelled out in Davis’s piece, is an ever-widening world-wide gap of have’s and have-not’s.

In it, Davis mentions Philip K. Dick at one point, and so much of the shantytown worlds he describes reminds me of some of Dick’s stories, these rotted-out places of destitution.

Dick has a short story, called “Pay For The Printer,” that strangely echoes (pre-cogs, really…) Davis’s piece:

Charlotte wasn’t listening. She was gazing vacantly through the ash-darkened window at the scene outside. To the right of the road, the jagged, yellowed remains of a town jutted up like broken teeth against the sooty midday sky. A bathtub here, a couple of upright telephone poles, bones and bleak fragments, lost amid miles of pocked debris. A forlorn, dismal sight. Somewhere in the moldy cave-like cellars a few mangy dogs huddled against the chill. The thick fog of ash kept real sunlight from reaching the surface.

In this particular PKD world, post-nuclear, as usual, humans have lost the ability to build things, for they have allowed machine-like creatures of an alien race — a Biltong — to do it for them. And the act of creation works through simulation — it “prints” a copy of whatever the humans need:

They had appeared in the closing days of the War, attracted by the H-bomb flashes — and found the remnants of the human race creeping miserably through radioactive black ash, trying to salvage what they could of their destroyed culture.

After a period of analysis, the Biltong had separated into individual units, begun the process of duplicating surviving artifacts humans brought to them. That was their mode of survival…

The twist in this story is, what happens when the Biltong’s start dying? What happens when the simulations stop coming? What, then, becomes of us?

That’s the future. Here we are, today, in some ways, not that much different. Caught in a trap of consumeristic simulacra, dependent on copies of copies for our knowledge, entertainment, culture. At the same time, at the edge of the city, mega-slums are growing, the hidden by-products of the “free markets,” except, with the numbers in the billions and growing, no longer all that hidden. Living in near post-apocalyptic conditions, at the margins of society, in land no one else wants to live in, because it’s subject to floods or landslides.

And back in the city, back in our world, the world of the Biltong. We no longer make “things,” we download them. Visual representation, as Paul Virilio points out in “The Lost Dimension,” is no longer restricted to the realm of “the real” — this “crisis of representation” in which “mental objects” are just as “real” as the real: “we now arrive at the emergence of the incorporeal.”

The simulacra of life.

In Dick’s short story, in the end, there is hope. A crude, wooden cup, not printed, but built by hand. Human hands. It represents hope, a way out of their ash-ridden dystopia.

The question for us, I think, is, where is our crude, wooden cup?


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