Two Oxford sociologists recently published a study concluding that engineers are more disposed than other professional demographic to join militant political groups (or, neocon parlance, "terrorist groups"). The finding itself--the empirical fact that rank-and-file terrorists are demonstrably likely to come from an engineering background of some kind--is less interesting than the analysis offered by the researchers to explain it (away). They express legitimate bafflement that members of the professional-technocratic class would come to oppose, much less militantly oppose, a global capitalism from which they directly benefit. Underlying this bafflement, however, is deeper incredulity: the researchers are clearly amazed--and why shouldn't they be, in this age of neoliberalism?--that members of the professional-technocratic class would become politicized at all. Indeed, when the researchers explicitly assimilate terrorism to "right-wing politics" (citing, as their analytical justification, the tendency of Rightism to reduce complex problems down to unwavering, univocal solutions), they are effectively claiming that politics is itself an inherently right-wing impulse--for what is a properly "political" act in our post-political age, if not an intervention that eshews "live and let live" ideologies outright, and instead takes an unwavering (to the point of downright "unreasonable") stance? In this sense, "politics" (right-wing or otherwise) stands in direct opposition to the reproduction of technocratic power, which seems hell-bent on purging us of any inclination to take an unwavering, principled stance on just about anything. The most disastrous moment imaginable for neoliberal hegemony is when people--of whatever class or occupation--begin to mount viable opposition to the flexible, self-revolutionizing logic of Capital. Perhaps this offers some insight into the real threat of engineer-terrorists (that is, beyond the usual, banal anxieties of political militancy [They could harm innocent civilians! and the like] spoon-fed to us by mainstream media): they are the disgruntled by-product of a regime of technocratic power that seeks to erase disgruntlement altogether.
What does this have to do with science fiction? Well, lots--at least to the extent that science-fictional visions of society attempt to understand the (usually rather horrific) results of down-to-earth, democratic humanism being supplanted by impersonal, unwieldy technologies of knowledge production and social control. In Neuromancer, Gibson talked briefly about locales that exist (or more pointedly, are ALLOWED to exist) to facilitate pure innovation--spaces in which the sole organizing principle of social life is Technology itself, that ubiquitous, self-permuting force that one either keeps up with or gets ruthlessly subsumed by. This seems to be a widely deployed trope in sci-fi, particularly those narratives concerned (allegorically) with our impending future. The Terminator films, for instance, envision America reduced to an apocalyptic simulacrum: all that's left of postmodern society is--what else?--the military-industrial complex, mega-corporations on the cutting age of technological innovation (which is, of course, responsible for the greatest tragedy to befall humanity in the history of the world). But wait: Where are the traditional loci of institutional authority--politicians, police, bureaucrats, etc.? In Freedman's paper from the beginnng of the course, he talked about the scene, from T2, of Arnold's aesthetically celebrated manhandling of police officers, in which we bear witness to the ecstatic destruction of human bodies (particularly pathetic human bodies), disturbing because of its obvious contempt for materiality, but also, and furthermore, because it underscores the disquietedly anarchic conditions of the film's landscape: police (as the emblem of the rule of Law) are no match for the scourge of capitalism and its volatile bedfellow, Technology. Indeed, it's worth noting that one of the only instances of traditional authority exercising any real power comes in Sarah's detention in a mental institution during T2. How perfect: the designation and quarantining of "madness"--the merciless intersection of knowledge production and social control.
Yet is this landscape really so allegorical? The films are by now somewhat dated (Terminator was released in 1984, Terminator 2 in 1991), but conditions of technocrat power, in which social life has acceded to the mandates to an out-of-control military-industrial complex (which arguably includes not only direct defense spending, but also many high-tech firms, the entertainment industry, and even some forms of scholarship [Middle East studies, anyone?]), have only intensified. It is difficult, for instance, to follow the 2008 election without it bringing to mind Terminator-style destruction of the impotent Law. What use is any politician in the face of transnational Capital--especially when all "reasonable" politicians refuse to question the merits of capitalism in the first place. Indeed, when Obama--to take one, rather arbitrary (though not entirely arbitrary, in light of his lovely rhetoric about "hope and "change") example--talks about returning power to the people, the proper response is, of course, to sigh, and wonder what's wrong with a nation in which fetishized politician-objects have come to not only replace, but actually occlude, structural analysis. What's crucial to realize w/r/t electoral politics is the sinister complementariy between larger-than-life promises ("A new era of bi-partisanship" / "A new role for America in the world" / etc.) and the one-part ridiculous, two-parts offensive pandering stints in which politicians return to the people and try their hand at "real" work (e.g., when John McCain puts on a hard-hat and visits some construction workers, or Hillary Clinton helps out at a daycare [humorous sidenote to my polemic: imagine John McCain helping out at a daycare]).
So vast are the vissicitudes of ideological absurdity here, it's hard to know where to start. Consider Slavoj Zizek's remarks on Stalinism, in which he discusses the fundamental impotence at the heart of self-aggrandizing measures (e.g., parades and the like), and ultimately claims that an "implicit acknowledgement of impotence is [actually] the hidden truth of the divinization of the Stalinist Leader into a supreme Genius who can give advice on almost any topic, from how to repair a tractor to how to cultivate flowers: what this Leader's intervention in everyday life means is that things do not function on the most everyday level--what kind of country is this, in which the supreme Leader himself has to dispense advice about how to repair tractors?" (Zizek, Slavoj. Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Verso [New York]: 2002, 120). Could we not ask precisely the same questions about political candidates today? In their pathetic attempts to learn vocational trades and thereby demonstrate "solidarity" for working people--which are, more than anything, reminiscent of young children during Take Your Child To Word Day attempting to "help" their parent with his or her task--do we not have the precise neoliberal equivalent of the Stalinist process that Zizek details above? Although there's really no hope of reigning in global Capital, which has ceased to play by any rules but its own--which is to say, although politicians really have no idea what the socio-economic future will hold--they can still play idly, as if with toys, with the tools of the working class (or, more sincerely, the tools of working class oppression), and then make sweeping speeches about looking out for American jobs etc. etc. And this time around, it's even more insidious than with Stalin: instead of the leader dispensing advice to the useless People (as, let's not forget, an affirmation of that People), it's the people dispensing advice to the useless Leader--as an affirmation, perversely enough, of that Leader. Of course, the very "ordinariness" of politicians, as represented in spectacles such as these, is precisely what ensures their auratic--one is even tempted to say, "extra-human"--occupation of an ontological-symbolic echelon above that of the layperson; these little moments of (ultimately false, of course) connection between politicians and "real people" that serve to underscore how truly different politicians are from us, which is what leads to ridiculous, at times disturbing, kinds of pathological fixation: Even though I have no idea how to transform health care and fight Evil and do the right thing all around, I'm sure Obama has the answers! (And all I have to do is be audacious!)
Truthfully, of course, nobody will have any legitimate answers until we start having an adult discussion about the constitutive antagonisms of social life, and that would require having an adult discussion about capitalism: how it can only reproduce itself through exploitation, how it relies on concrete violence to maintain "normal conditions," etc.--which isn't very pleasant and certainly isn't in the interest of any individual presidential candidate (or really any institutional authority figure for that matter). Which brings us back to those pesky engineer-terrorists: It's difficult to understand why they're upset, especially when they're basically the only members of the professional elite who are. In fact, in direct contrast to politicians, engineer-terrorists seem to be precisely those institutional authority figures who ARE interested in having an adult discussion about the economic and social effects capitalism--a discussion that always gets nipped pre-emptively in the bud, and thus channeled into acts of obscene, excessive militancy. It's intriguing, to say the least, that engineers, who more or less personify military-industrial knowledge production, are nevertheless least amenable to the calcification of neoliberal power. In an age marked by cacophonies of technocratic apologia coming from experts whose livelihoods could quite conceivably get trampled by future economic developments (pundits, economists, sociologists, etc.), engineers--the backbone of technocratic society par excellence--display a counterintuitive propensity to dismantle it.