A new breed of 20-something philosophers are breathing controversy into cyberspace. Tony Durham reports from the Virtual Futures '95 conference. Music journalist Tony Marcus is talking about techno. Or rather, he is playing some favourite tracks while saying rather little. To sum up, or perhaps to expand: this most anonymous and impersonal of musics can only be properly experienced in a crowd of dancers at 3am. This is rebel music. It raises two fingers at the big record companies and the star system.
A man in the audience suggests that the same could once have been said about rock and roll. He has plainly not understood. "When was the last time you went to a club?" the speaker demands irritatedly. Instantly the questioner parries: "When was the last time you were at a cultural studies conference?"
This surreal exchange was typical of the Virtual Futures '95 conference, held last month at the University of Warwick. The 540 people attending - nearly twice as many as at the first such event in 1994 - seem to have been irresistibly drawn together by a common purpose which no one can articulate or explain. It is about the future, ventures philosophy PhD student Eric Cassidy, who, with postgraduates Dan O'Hara and Otto Imken, has organised the event two years running. Are people excited or anxious about the future? "Both."
There are techno-optimists here, like the Russian Alexander Chislenko, now settled in the United States and a member of the Extropians, a group believing that life will evolve beyond mere humanity and will expand far beyond the solar system. But others see the future as a paranoid cyberpunk dystopia, a panopticon where everything we do is recorded by cold digital eyes.
Officially, the unifying theme is the philosophy of Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze, but it seems unlikely that everyone here has read Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaux or even heard of the authors of the two works which together make up Capitalism and Schizophrenia. There are far more tangible attractions here: the Australian performance artist Stelarc, surrendering control of his left arm to a muscle stimulator which administers 50-volt shocks; hours of computer movies; guided walks on the Internet's wild side; and a good, cheap, loud party.
But the talk is good, too. And the audiences, who are getting a long weekend of events at the student-friendly price of Pounds 30, have an astounding appetite for intellectual discourse. Late on Friday evening the plenary room is packed for the Mexican writer and film-maker Manuel DeLanda. He is perhaps the only person at the conference to offer a convincing account of Deleuze and Guattari's most enigmatic concept, the "body without organs". For DeLanda the BwO (as it tends to be abbreviated) is a raw flow of energy, lava or anything else, which drives the self-organising processes from which form and structure emerge. His explanation echoes the theory of dissipative structures which won Ilya Prigogine the 1977 Nobel prize for chemistry. The pony-tailed Mexican is one of the few speakers bold enough to take Deleuze and Guattari to task - for their obscure prose and their poor grasp of geology. The Panorama room remains packed even though the sub-bass pulse of techno music announces that the Red Mercury party has begun in the adjoining students' union.
Gashgirl, also known as Francesca da Rimini, is a member of the Australian cyberfeminist collective VNS-Matrix. Seated under a spotlight, for 40 minutes she recounts her sexual adventures on the Internet. All the while, her shoelaces are obsessively tied and retied by a kneeling Indian slave girl.
In cyberspace there would have been one less shoelace to tie, since Gashgirl's virtual leg was cut off during a particularly masochistic encounter in the morgue. Gashgirl has spent several hours a day on the Internet for the past six months, most of it in those parts of LambdaMOO where people gather to enact outrageous sexual fantasies through their computer keyboards. Like dancing to techno at 3am, you probably have to do it to fully understand its attraction. But for those who seek an intellectual understanding of humanity's place in the cybernetic future, Warwick's philosophy department has become a magnet. That is why Virtual Futures happens here.
The Warwick faculty has a core of classical, Platonic philosophers. Another group, inspired by the postmodern approach of Jacques Derrida, was once regarded as Warwick's radical clique. In that role, however, it has been supplanted by a new tribe which has no definite name but might be called the cybernetic materialists. "That really is Nick Land, Sadie Plant and 70 per cent of the graduate school," Cassidy explains. Sadie Plant, currently a cultural studies lecturer at the University of Birmingham, is joining the Warwick philosophy faculty in the autumn.
"The last Virtual Futures conference really knocked everybody out," says Dr Land. "A very large proportion of the people we had been reading on courses, we arranged to get here." Manuel DeLanda and novelist Pat Cadigan are among the 1994 speakers who returned for the 1995 event.
Dr Land praises the graduate students who "worked their butts off for eight months" to organise the conference. He regards the activities as entirely relevant to their studies. "It's not time out." Last November Eric Cassidy and Dan O'Hara - who is taking an MA in English - organised a conference on American novelist Thomas Pynchon. They persuaded John Kraft and other leading Pynchon scholars to present papers. On the strength of this they were asked to edit Pynchon's notebooks, and they were offered jobs in Korea by Sam-Koo Kim of Pusan National University's English department.
Otto Imken, in the second year of a PhD in philosophy, explains the economics of the conference. Ninety per cent of its income comes from registrations. There is a small grant from the West Midlands Arts Council. Letters to about 50 companies brought no response, except from book publishers. Apparently the other businesses regarded the conference as too interdisciplinary.
But that is how it was meant to be. "You can get a lot of ideas from people in other fields," says Imken. "Philosophy in practice is a very closed field, very self-isolated, so it's good to have these crossovers."
The downside of this is that an interdisciplinary audience may not appreciate what luminaries have been mustered on the platform. The panel on Schizopolitics should have been a highlight but the audience drove the discussion in unproductive directions. "I don't think most people in the room realised that the six or seven experts on Deleuze and Guattari were in the room," Imken laments.
Eric Cassidy is conversant with the cyberpunk authors. Dan O'Hara tends to be hovering with his walkie talkie wherever sound systems are being set up, but he shrugs off the suggestion that he must have good contacts in the music business. "This is pretty much the only philosophy department in the world that organises events like these," says Cassidy. It is conceivable that he is wrong. But who is going to argue with a philosopher?