Memories of the Decadence

By Hari Kunzru, 16 October 2008

At the beginning of the Decadence it was easy. Although we were bored, and though everything had been done before, we were seized with a peculiar sense of potential. Our anomie had something optimistic to it. This was the golden age of our decline. 

During the Decadence we went for promenades in the poorer quarters of the city, pausing to examine choice deformities, examples of disease or dementia. Soon we began to imitate them, at first only in mannerisms, later using makeup, drugs, prosthetics or surgery. At length it became impossible to tell the fashionable from the afflicted. We thought this a salutary moral lesson, and took great delight in ignoring it.

During the Decadence we ate and drank to excess, until a point came when excess went out of fashion. Then we would revert to the other extreme. Mathematicians told us the attractor governing our consumption was a simple period which, though occasionally disrupted by shifts elsewhere in the libidinal economy, was reasonably easy to map. Manufacturers of luxury foods and the proprieters of health farms, spas and colonic irrigation parlours learned to track the so called Bulimia Cycle, and for a time such businesses became extremely profitable. Soon however, activity became so intense that the pattern was disrupted and our predictions went awry, setting in motion a wave of bankruptcies, suicides and social ostracisms.

Memories of the Decadence - Hari Kunzru

Image: Nick Green

During the Decadence we gave up sexual intercourse, substituting for it various kinds of fetishism. We refined our tastes, narrowing their range and fantastically increasing their complexity. Certain people became interested in abstraction, concentrating perhaps on household objects or patterns of light and shade. Such citizens were known to climax spontaneously at the sight of a safety pin or a line of red tail lights stretching forward along a dual carriageway. One celebrated roué took his pleasure entirely from the contemplation of lipstick stains on the rims of Waterford crystal champagne flutes. He claimed this stemmed more from an appreciation of colour and texture than any displacement of the presence of a woman onto the glass.

During the erotic phase of the Decadence, combinations of time, place, mood and the presence of physical objects became ever more specific. An increasing percentage of resources were dedicated to sexual research and organisation. Orgasms began to require corporate sponsorship, a trend which reached its apogee in the meticulously-planned bacchanals at Nuremberg, Jonestown and Hyde Park. The latter, in which an estimated two hundred thousand people participated in a ritual designed solely to produce the little death in a middle-aged software billionaire, was considered the highpoint of the movement. A cluster of massively-parallel processors were connected to a variety of front-end delivery devices. When triggered they instantiated patented pleasure-algorithms in the crowd, causing runaway positive feedback which was gathered into a series of giant cells, amusingly styled to represent luminous linga and yoni. When the charge had accumulated to a sufficient degree it was fed back via a fibreoptic core to the Park Lane hotel suite where the entrepreneur lay, bathed in the glow of his hi-res monitors. The crowd themselves, devotees of the influential cult of auto-erotic consumption, financed the event through ticket sales and the purchase of various items of merchandising. The energy generated by their activity produced a small quantity of almost-clear seminal fluid on the raw silk sheets of the billionaire's bed, and augmented his bank balance by an estimated twelve and a half million pounds. It was thus considered a success and plans for a two-hundred date world tour were drawn up, only to be scotched by his premature death from skin cancer in a Hawaii tanning dome. Soon afterwards, a fashion for feverish masturbatory interiority gained favour, inaugurating a rage for Keats, broom closets and antique printed pornography. Boarding schools were set up throughout the country. The days of the megabacchanals drew temporarily to a close.

The involvement of large numbers of people in organised sexual experimentation necessitated the development of information networks, directories and algebraic search engines dedicated to matching those of compatible tastes. Nymphets were put in touch with elderly professors, cyborg freaks with the manufacturers of Japanese industrial robots, those interested in coercion with those who wanted to be coerced. This last category caused some problems among purist dominants, for whom the desire to be coerced disqualified some candidates from consideration as slaves, concentration camp inmates or members of religious orders. A standard disclaimer form was quickly developed. Willingness to sign meant automatic barring as an involuntary submissive. These questions of consent were handled by the Society of Sadean Solicitors (SSS), whose obsessive fascination with the Byzantine complexities of this area of law never once led them to waive their exorbitant fees.

During the Decadence, eroticism itself was only a passing fad. The information network which grew up to enable efficient sexual contact became itself the object of our interests. Connoisseurs of classifications, indices and filing systems paid astronomical sums for rare databases. We became collectors of objects, not from any particular interest in the things themselves, but simply for the opportunities they presented us for cataloguing. Some citizens rejected computer automation altogether, taking great pride in feats of card-indexing. Cross-referencing by hand became an art as much appreciated as sculpture or the programming of combat games.

We soon developed an acute awareness of taxonomy. Classification according to phylum, genus and species became de rigueur, not just for biological material, but in many other fields as well. Televised public debates were held over the correct designation of common phenomena. They were conducted along the lines of medieval theological disputations, and took place in a studio mocked up to represent the cloisters of the twelfth-century University of Bologna. The only anachronism was the pair of bikini-clad girls who operated the digital scoreboard.

We engaged in a passionate love affair with hierarchies, all the more intense for our awareness that they were meaningless, even ridiculous as tools for understanding our distributed, networked world. As the ebbs and flows of our frenzied culture became more extreme, we turned to the verities of dead, static systems to comfort ourselves, soothing the ache of the data pumping faster through our bruised, red-raw flesh. We relearned Abulafia's Caballah and studied the circular taxonomies of the Catalan, Ramon Lull. We rejected Watson and Crick for Paracelsus and John Dee, embraced Galen and the four humours, studied the Tree of Knowledge, the Body Politic, the Great Chain of Being and the angelology of the Scholastics. We wept at the beauty of the Metaphysical Grammarians, and yearned to know the true Hebrew God spoke to Adam before the flood. 

Eventually the cult of learning collapsed altogether and with it, the preoccupation with self-definition which had driven the entire early period of the Decadence. Citizens no longer cared to record or understand the minutiae of their personal experience. They left themselves unexplored. After the collapse of all extant systems of knowledge, a feature of the early decadent period, subjective experience had become the only reference point for establishing meaning or value. Ceasing even to ask what one wanted thus became considered the most advanced form of transgression. Embracing this we conducted the pursuit of pleasure in a lacklustre, half-hearted way. If we stumbled on something we liked, it was purely by chance. Maybe we would return to it. More often than not we would limp off somewhere else. There were many casualties. Service industries suffered dreadfully. Aesthetics collapsed as a discipline.

During this critical period of the Decadence, we did whatever we could to avoid the act of choice. We chose our political leaders via a lottery, and organised our social lives by an ingenious system of random number generation. Many citizens abandoned even their most basic body functions to chance. Gambling disappeared as a pastime, since none of us were interested in beating the odds.

Pure randomness soon fell into decline. Some definition returned, though our codes were still fuzzy, unclear and imprecise. The vague vogue, as it became known, lasted for some time, though the inexact measuring systems in use during this phase render impossible any accurate statement of its length, impact, or intensity. It was a time of rumour. myth, superstition and nameless fear. Certain revisionist scholars have accordingly refused to recognise it as a historical entity, since it seems in so many ways continuous with the rest of our troubled, fluid times.

Having exhausted the most arcane possibilities of body and mind, having become bored with boredom itself, we began to adopt postures of total commitment. Ideologies were formed, wars fought, and causes died for, all in a spirit of absolute hedonism. We believed because it pleased us to believe. Our crusades and jihads were as bloody as any in history. We performed breathtaking acts of self-sacrifice and exacted violent retribution on our enemies. Bizarre monotheisms arose, whose fiery ill-worded theologies afforded ample opportunity for schisms, heresies and apostasy. There were public crucifixions. Young men with faraway eyes held their hands in flame rather than sign documents of recantation. Soon totalitarianism swept through our cities, bringing tanks and napalm in its wake. We covered the earth in ashes. The devastation ushered in a period of mourning, during which we wept rivers of tears, planted trees and erected monuments whose poignancy matched the vastness of our remorse. Joy followed hard on the heels of our mourning. Lassitude followed joy. Our prophets and scientists ran simulations to predict the next lurch of our communal whims, but each time their code was outdated as soon as it was compiled. The cycle ran faster, cults and movements swarming like flies on a carcass, paradigms blooming and withering like exotic cancers. Soon there was only speed, a sensation of pure intensity.

Then one day the Decadence ended. We began to be moderate in all things. Our decisions were considered, the product of sound judgement. Our institutions stabilised and prepared themselves for steady growth. We quoted maxims to each other. "A little and often". "Mens sana in corpore sano". Now our economists have quelled the speculators, advocating co-operation and a sound industrial base. We believe in the family, in community and an undefined spirituality, though if you asked us we could not tell you why. Debating is of no interest any more. We want a quiet life. "All to the good", as we often say to our neighbours. We are content. And yet... And yet there is something stale in the air. Citizens whisper in the social clubs. They say that it cannot last.

Hari Kunzru August 1995

email: <hari AT>