Thoughts inspired by ‘I Remember Babylon’
For anyone who is cool and under 30ish years of age sexual freedom together with tolerance of life-styles and orientations is very much a given. This is certainly no bad thing, in itself. But actually, the cultural meaning and the political ‘function’ of sexual libertarianism needs to be looked at more closely.
It’s as if something hasn’t been noticed. As if we are not in the world described so presciently – but with one, crucial, mistake ! – in Arthur C. Clarke’s short story ‘I Remember Babylon’, itself a reflection on what he has referred to as ‘the most important thing I ever wrote’ – ‘Extraterrestrial Relays’ *.
The latter was the first published suggestion for providing global TV and radio network via geostationary comsats. The short story features Clarke himself being approached by an agent of a foreign power who thanks him for the inspiration he gave for the propaganda project of that power. The agent explains to him that:
For the first time in history, any form of censorship has become utterly impossible … the customer can get what he wants, right in his own home … variety is the spice of life. We’ll have plenty of conventional entertainment … And every so often we’ll have information programmes – I hate that word ‘propaganda’ – Our special features will just be the bait … History is on our side.
Land of Lincoln and Franklin and Melville, I love you and I wish you well. But into my heart blows a cold wind from the past; for I remember Babylon.
The interlocutor of Clarke (the character) is an agent of the Chinese Peoples’ Republic, explaining how a global comsat network will use pornography and light entertainment to spread propaganda for Stalinism – though, of course, Clarke – a political illiterate – would have called it ‘communism’.
Clarke, the author, was astonishingly accurate. His error was, of course, that in fact the comsats are controlled by the USA and their propaganda is for the despotism of the megacorps and for the market as the only possible form of organisation for total societal labour. In other words – for the ‘End of History’. The phrase ‘History is on our side’ was part of the rhetoric of Stalinist culture from the 1930s – 50s. It is, surely, one of Clio’s best jokes that in a time when such “Grand Narratives” were been dissed from all sides Francis Fukuyama published his The End of History and the Last Man. The thesis of this work – now hardly discussed, because it seems self-evident – is that indeed history has a direction, and it has now reached its goal: Liberal capitalism.
Many seem not to notice that the logic of the market itself is to liquidate the barriers to sexual expression in its imperative to commodify all human relationships. Thye appear to be stuck in a time-loop recycling the slogans of 1967, of Reich and Norman O Brown and the hippies; even though many will never have heard of the writers.
* Story publ. Playboy (March 1960), reprinted Tales of Ten Worlds (1962), quotes from The Collected Stories (Gollancz, 2000).
Article published in Wireless World (October 1945).
On the web, here:
Abridged version in Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! (Harper Collins, 1999)