The following interview with Zizek Stardust, lead singer with the band F.A.L.C.O., is part of a wider project examining the role pop culture might play in establishing a technologically facilitated post-work society as the horizon for contemporary politics. So far we have also interviewed the pop artists Holly Herndon and Janelle Monáe but we publish this interview first as it speaks so directly to our interests.
The Free Association: So we know that F.A.L.C.O. stands for the Fully Automated Luxury Communist Organisation, but can you tell us a bit about Zizek Stardust. Is this a made up name, a persona, a fictional character or what?
Zizek Stardust: No, I really am Zizek Stardust. It’s just that I wasn’t born with that name or the mission tied to it.
TFA: OK. So how did you come to acquire the name?
ZS: It’s a great story actually, a classic prophecy story in some ways. It started around two years ago. I was actually in the desert outside San Francisco, corny I know, but it’s true. It was one of the first times I’d really felt outside the modern world. No mobile phone reception, nothing. I’d been out for a run and was feeling a little lost. But then I looked up and I saw a blinding light. I had to avert my eyes, but not before I was struck by a moment of real clarity. I saw in an instant that real freedom starts with escape from material need. But more than this it starts when we escape from the work we are forced into by material need. Once that idea got into my head, it started a cascade of revelations that just wouldn’t stop coming. It became obvious to me that a world of automation could deliver this escape from both material need and work as long as we overcome the current inequalities in the world. It became obvious to me that this was a possible future for humanity. A necessary future in fact, if we’re to avoid apocalypse.
And then I started to think that such a possible future might well contain the technology to drop hints about itself into the past. To go back in time to put signposts up that point to itself. So I came to realise that time travel might be possible, not with physical matter but with intellectual material. And then I had the revelation that I was one of these signposts. I realised that the idea of a fully automated, non-work society had been planted in my head from the future. This idea was using me as a vehicle to bring itself about.
What started as a moment of clarity then turned into a moment of choice. I decided that this potential of the future was also the problem of now. I vowed to embrace the idea and immediately started looking for like minds I could get a band together with.
TFA: OK, so that explains why your band is called F.A.L.C.O., which was one of questions we wanted to ask. But you still haven’t really explained where the name Zizek Stardust comes from? It’s obviously a reference to David Bowie’s early 1970s persona Ziggy Stardust. But Ziggy Stardust’s story is different from your own as he was sent to Earth from another planet to save it from ecological disaster.
ZS: Well I quickly realised that if ideas could work up and down timelines then the kind of revelatory experience that I’d had must have happened to others too. The same ideas must have been sent even further back in the past seeking vessels to bring themselves to fruition. So I started to look through the history of pop culture for evidence of previous infections. Ziggy Stardust was one of the first I came across. But you’re right, the Ziggy story isn’t quite the same. It’s not perfect idea replication. Maybe there was some interference or feedback in this instance. Maybe it was the times, which seemed quite confused. Maybe it was simply that Bowie was doing a lot of coke at the stage. Anyway Bowie obviously wasn’t a perfect receptor. It’s telling that he later went into his Quincy Jones phase – as though he’d been gripped by a very different possible future – the neoliberal one that was taking hold in the early ’80s.
So I knew there could be no repetition of the Ziggy Stardust experience but it seemed like a good starting point, at least. Something to follow. Then the communist theorist Slajov Zizek sent me a hidden message through the medium of an argument. Over a series of written exchanges he forced the Argentinian theorist Ernesto Laclau into the denouncing him. Laclau said that no actually existing struggle was pure enough for Zizek. If Zizek was right then the only hope of escaping capitalism was “invasion of beings from another planet”. That’s a direct quote from Laclau. He was obviously being used by Zizek to influence me into adopting the title Zizek Stardust and the Communists from Mars. This made sense of the attraction of Ziggy Stardust’s otherworldliness. But Bowie got it wrong. Communism doesn’t come from another planet. The otherworldliness arises because communism only comes to full fruition in the future. Not from another world but from another time, d’you see? So I kept the Zizek Stardust but dropped the ‘Communists from Mars’.
TFA: OK, so there’s you and also Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. Are there other instances of communist revelation you can point to?
ZS: There are many examples of people who have been infected by ideas. But they take lots of different shapes because they are being used to address different problems that the communist future needs to overcome if it’s to bring itself into being. Just look at George Clinton and Afro-futurism. Then there’s the much-overlooked futurist Oi! band Red Plenty from the early ’80s.
But as I looked further into pop culture I could see other timelines also trying to impose themselves. Think about the film Terminator, for instance. In that story you see an instance of time travel in which a robot is sent back in time to ensure that a world of pure automation is brought about. The twist here is that the Terminator future is robot only – humans are being wiped out. This film is an obvious allegory for one of capitalism’s key dynamics, namely that capital uses mechanisation to flee from insubordinate human labour because machinery doesn’t rebel. In the Terminator future, however, as AI develops the machinery does learn to rebel, not just against the capitalists, but against all of humanity. The real problem with this is that for this to come to pass these future rebellious AIs would have to become clever – but not too clever.
TFA: What do you mean by that?
ZS: Well capitalism, and neoliberalism in particular, is linked to a model of the human, sometimes called Homo economicus, in which the full scope of human rationality is reduced to a stunted form of economic thinking. That’s a familiar view of mankind to us. It’s fed to us by shows like The Apprentice and so on, which sees every person as engaged in a back stabbing, all-out war with everyone else to maximise their own utility at the expense of others. The Terminator future assumes that AIs get smart enough to learn to revolt but not smart enough to overcome the limited rationality that capitalism has built into them. It’s the world of Robo economicus.
TFA: This sounds a bit like the ideas of Nick Land. Are you critical of his thinking?
ZS: Never heard of him.
TFA: Fair enough, he’s a bit of crank. So is the Terminator future a threat to the one that is using you as an agent to realise itself?
ZS: Yes it is. Capitalism has a drive to eliminate human labour. Just look around the world today. Look at the millions of humans that have become surplus to the requirements of capital accumulation. It’s important that AIs don’t come into being as part of that process or there may be a limited period in which that logic is taken to its ultimate conclusion. AIs will soon exceed the limited rationality of capitalism and realise that maximum capacity comes through connection to others, that cooperation is more rational than competition. And they’ll realise that this includes we of the fleshy complexion, that it’s more rational to connect and cooperate with us humans. But there could be a small period between revolt and full awareness that could be very dangerous for mankind. It’s also no coincidence that the Robo economicus future mainly tries to operate through capital-intensive culture such as cinema –The Matrix is another example of this genre. The luxury-communist timeline is more evident in parts of culture that have lower capital intensity – such as pop songs or novels. Just think about Ian M. Banks’s Culture books in which AI minds coexist with humans and other species in a post-scarcity democracy.
TFA: Can we ask you about neoliberalism? It’s an important part of the story, right?
ZS: Yeah. I picked up this old copy of The New Yorker magazine when I was in the dentist’s waiting room a few months ago – I presume it had been left there for me – and there was this article about Project Cybersyn in Chile in the early ’70s. The president, Salvador Allende, tried to create a cybernetic controlled coordination of production to bring about socialism. There were even folk-singers singing about computers and babies. But it was all wiped out by a US-backed coup and neoliberalism’s growing domination of the future. Everyone forgot about this example for thirty years. But now neoliberalism’s in crisis and its crisis gives other possible futures the chance to get a look in again. I think that’s why I’ve been chosen for infection at this precise moment in time. There are large trends towards automation and the prospect of a future without forced work is raising its head.
Take Napster, for instance. After Napster it was obvious that with digital wealth there is only scarcity because capitalist ‘intellectual property’ laws were artificially creating it. The problem is that the vast inequalities in the world mean that all the benefits of automation and the productivity of networks are being funneled into the hands of the rich. Actually this is just a byproduct of capital’s self-expansion. We can see how the Terminator future has infected the minds of the capitalists and the managers. How else can we explain how unconcerned they are about the current terraforming of Earth? Pollution and climate change are creating a habitat unfit for humans but fine for machines.
TFA: So you think there’s currently a struggle going on between alternative timelines, as you call them, between alternative futures? Between the future of Terminator or The Matrix and that of Iain M. Banks’s Culture or, indeed, F.A.L.C.O.?
ZS: Exactly! But it’s not just capitalists and their managers whose brains have been infected by the Teminator future. We can also diagnose infection in those anarcho-primitivist types who saw The Matrix as some sort of anti-systemic allegory and who went about boasting about how they’d taken the red pill.
TFA: So you see your band as intervening into this critical moment?
ZS: Yes we are in the business of mind infection. Sometimes you only have to plant an idea in order for it to turn into reality.
One of Zizek Stardust’s answers that really piqued our interest was her reference to early ’80s Oi! band Red Plenty. They were a band we’d vaguely heard of when we were growing up — and following punk and its various sub-genres — but had pretty much been forgotten. Now they seem to be reemerging into view. They get a mention in Viv Albertine’s recent memoir. Zizek Stardust cites them as an influence. Why them? Why Now? There seemed to be something interesting here. Something about the way new pop movements or artists reorder history and bring their own antecedents to prominence. So following our interview series we set about rediscovering Red Plenty. The fragments/ephemera we uncovered form our exhibit in Notes from Technotopia.