Monday, 7 April 2014

The Critic as hack(er)

A couple of things last week made me wonder. The first was when I was invited to contribute an article to a journal. My first thought, as usual, was ‘Great! Yes, of course!’ But then I came up dry. I couldn’t think of a single thing that I wanted to write about.

The second was that I had a few ‘free’ days at the end of last week. It’s Easter vacation, but my daughter Isobel is still at school, and Deniz took my step-daughter down to Oxford. So three clear days for – what? I have a couple of pressing projects (a monograph to finish, corrections and revisions to another book), and this seemed like time I could use. But – no. I read a bit, thought a bit. Let my brain tick over without forcing it. And the days went by.

And I realised that I hadn’t posted on here for a couple of months. Traffic is still steady (thanks), but nothing had come to mind, nothing urgent that I wanted to write about. So I wondered: have I written myself out?

I asked myself this last night. I wanted to write for a long time, and in a sense becoming a university lecturer is the fulfilment of my wishes. I teach (which I love doing), and apart from that admin stuff, I read and I watch films and I write. But writing is now work, and sometimes it feels like hack work. I’m not particularly disciplined as a writer: I don’t have set times and patterns. Perhaps I should. But I realised that the reason why I’ve resisted doing so is that I’ve tried to cling to the idea that writing isn’t work, it’s something to do with inspiration or the critical moment when you see the pattern emerging, that this is connected to this and maybe means this. (It’s a version of the conspiracy narratives I enjoyed as a teenager. Everything connects.) 

That’s how I think of myself as a critic, I suppose: a recogniser of pattern. As I’ve written before about Amadeus, I’m no genius, no paradigm-shifter. I work, tinker with stuff, come up with interesting stuff (I hope), often on popular culture and its guises, because that’s where certain diagnoses can be found. Hardly any of my work can be said to be written on ‘high’ literature (except maybe the Sinclair work, and he’s a hybrid writer), though I have a distinct bias towards the experimental. In fact, experimental work in a popular idiom is precisely where my interests lay. When it comes to science fiction, I love the New Wave; and though I’ve read plenty of commercial hack-work, work written for payment by-the-word, and can appreciate it for what it is, the idea of writing like that, writing hack work, is kind-of where I find myself. Because that’s part of the deal of being a contemporary academic.

And I do too much, I know it. I say ‘yes’ too much. I’ve always had ideas and like to get them on paper (out of my head). I probably do ‘need to write’ in some ways, even though that might be detrimental (perhaps to quality). But is needing to write work, or is it to do with something else? Compulsion, inspiration?

In an essay titled ‘The Essay As Hack’, Ander Monson writes about the lyric essay as a form that ‘can potentially incorporate anything, draw from anything, in search of the range of human thought it attempts to match’. I like this thought, and try to correspond to that in my blog posts. (The strictures of the academic essay often mitigate against that fluidity.) If the essay is a hack, then the essayist is a hacker: a figure to conjure with in the post-cyberpunk, digital age, and used by critics like Andrew Ross or Mark Dery (as well as Monson) to indicate a cultural politics and practice as much as a writerly technique.

But I’m no hacker either. Or, if I am, it’s another kind of metaphor. Not for me the glamour accruing to the infiltrator of digital data systems, Gibson’s console cowboys, the liberators and disseminators of hidden information. Rather, I’m the hacker of the golf course, slicing and hooking his way along and across the fairways, swish and snick, losing the odd ball in the rough, but eventually (never mind the score) getting there, getting that damned white ball into the cup, and along the way there might be the occasional flash, the shot that flies true and lands just where you want it to.

I’ve no cultural (or social) affinity for golf, though I used to regularly watch it on tv as a lad and even tried it a few times, but I always liked Severiano Ballesteros, and now I know why. Seve was the sublime hacker, who would whang a drive into a car park and then strike the most outrageous, perfectly shaped recovery shot just a foot from the cup (and then might miss the putt). A fallible genius, an angelic hacker, but also a golfer who, despite fading powers and incapacitating back injuries, carried on.

So I will carry on. I will carry on hacking, hacking away at stuff, working, writing. It’s my job, after all.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Anarchy (and science fiction) in the UK

I met Ken Macleod fleetingly at a science fiction conference over a dozen years ago now, and he seemed a very approachable and friendly fellow. This week I read the first in his Fall Revolution series, The Star Fraction (1995), though it’s been sitting on my shelf for while. Immediately prior to this, I had read Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland (2010) for the science fiction reading group that some students are running in the department; and I also scooted through Michael Moorcock’s Modem Times 2.0 (2010), a short Jerry Cornelius text published in PM’s ‘Outspoken Authors’ series. While I though Moxyland so-so, a variant on cyberpunk tropes, I really engaged with The Star Fraction, which was no less post-cyberpunk (its central narrative concerning the coming-to-consciousness of an AI, and the end a When-It-Changed kind of moment, straight outta Neuromancer). Macleod imagines a fractured Britain, with a Hanoverian Kingdom, an archipelago of mini-states dotted across the isles (including the Christian Beulah City, occupying parts of North London, and Norlonto, the ‘free’ space around Alexandra Palace that is home to a non-governmental space program), and the remnant of the overthrown Republic existing as both an exiled government-in-waiting and private military force. Macleod’s future Britain is both Balkanised and militarised.

Norlonto is, though, a kind of anarchy. That is, it has no central government; law is enforced through contractual agreements between groups and individuals; social welfare is organised through collectives and mutual aid; and freedom of speech, individual liberty and a free market are crucial to how Norlonto operates. It is, in fact, a variant of anarchism closer to anarcho-capitalism than a classical model of anarchy; and the militarization of its fabric, its competing ‘terrorist’ groups and security outfits, marks Norlonto as a problematic ‘utopia’. If this is a social space in some senses ‘more free’ than one with an oppressive state apparatus, it is also one riven with factionalism, violence and insecurity. The London of The Star Fraction is no News from Nowhere.

What I really liked about The Star Fraction was the concreteness of the imagined future, and its embeddedness in a history of the politics of resistance or opposition. Many of the fighters and space workers are communists or anarchists dressed in boots and jeans and leather jackets, their debates held in pubs over beer and cigarettes, their ideas informed by political tracts picked up from second-hand book stalls. The picture of Norlonto that Macleod paints for us seems derived directly from experience, from the politics and (counter-)culture of the late 1970s, the era of the end of the postwar British settlement and the arrival of Thatcher and monetarism: the era of punk.

Macleod’s punk sensibility is markedly different from a cyberpunk one, even though the narrative debt to a Gibsonian cyberpunk seems fairly clear. Rather than a romanticised hacker at the core of the narrative, with escape or transcendence of the system the aim (the Street a place to hide, to plan, but not to live), Macleod’s protagonist Moh Kohn is a communist, a mercenary, and the son of two Left activists murdered during the imposed restoration of the Hanoverian regime. The Star Fraction encodes the postwar history of the British Left and its several defeats, but is ultimately hopeful, if not strictly utopian. 

I’ve become interested in the theory and politics of anarchy, partly as an attempt to fit my own views into the political spectrum more sensibly. (I’m probably of the libertarian Left, a socialist with anarchist tendencies.) Reading Macleod, therefore, hit a chord. Over Christmas I had raced through Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, a counterpart to Nineteen Eighty-Four where, instead of that supremely dystopian figure of the future – imagine ‘a boot stamping upon a human face forever’ – there is the representation of fellowship, of community, of collectivity, apparent in the early days of the war in Barcelona, or the comradeship Orwell finds among the militiamen of the POUM. Orwell does not seem to believe in the possibility of a hopeful future – Homage, like Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, is a text filled with the bitterness of the defeat of the hopes and aspirations of the Left – but in human feeling, in comradeship, there is something to counter the machinery of violence and oppression. 

The Alan Moore/ David Lloyd comic/ graphic novel V for Vendetta is deeply indebted to Orwell’s imagined future Britain, a police state of grey austerity, but its dystopian protagonist is a ‘terrorist’, whose adherence to a politics of anarchy is also deeply implicated in the violence of the totalitarian state: V counters this by blowing up Parliament and the Old Bailey, assassinating (or murdering) scores of people, suborning the super-computer Fate, and eventually entering Valhalla as his funerary train explodes beneath Downing Street. (With too much blood on his/her hands, V cannot live on into the new political dispensation, whatever that may be.) His/her ‘precious anarchy’ forms the political backbone of the narrative. When Evey Hammond, a young girl rescued from rape and death by secret policemen by V, and then ‘trained’ (in a variety of ways) to be V’s successor, asks: ‘All this uproar and riot, V... is this anarchy?’ (Book 3, chapter 2: ‘Verwirrung’, p.195), V replies: ‘No, this is only the land of take-what-you-want. Anarchy means ‘without leaders’, not ‘without order’. With anarchy comes an age of ordnung, of true order, which is to say voluntary order. The age of ordnung will begin when the mad and incoherent cycle of verwirrung that these bulletins reveal has run its course. This is chaos.’

The same might be said of The Star Fraction: from an oppressive order to verwirrung, the narrative ends in suspension, before the creation of either ordnung or (as is suggested) the potential for a different kind of totalization under the socialist Republic. Anarchy seems a way, for dystopian texts, to square the circle between a politics of the Left and the dystopian form’s implicit valuation of the individual against the state.
In Grant Morrison’s comic book The Invisibles, the connection between the politics of counter-cultural resistance, in particular an ‘anarchic’ libertarianism, and science fiction becomes even more explicit. The Invisibles narrates the battle between the heroic group of the title (led by the self-declared anarchist ‘King Mob’, not only a slogan daubed on the walls during the Gordon Riots in 1780, but the name of a revolutionary group active in London in the 1970s) and the ‘Conspiracy’, whose activities and organisation reflect the kind of tentacular secret group from paranoid conspiracy texts of the 1970s, and in particular the tone of Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy. The first collection of the book is called Say You Want a Revolution, a reference, of course, to The Beatles ‘Revolution’; the third is called Entropy in the UK. This title connects up the dominant trope of New Wave science fiction – entropy, a metaphor for social and cultural disintegration – with the title of the Sex Pistols’ first single. This connection between the 60s counter-culture and Punk is at the centre of Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, which takes the Sex Pistols as a late manifestation of a political and artistic revolt, which is traced back through the Situationists (an overt influence on Malcolm McLaren) to Dada.

Entropy in the UK begins with King Mob captured by his enemies and being tortured. To combat this, King Mob uses his cover as a writer to spin a psychic defence made up of SF narratives and psychedelia, which are materialised in the character of ‘Gideon Stargrave’. Stargrave is King Mob’s alter-ego, a 60s fashionista-cum-spy who, at times, looks like Noel Gallagher in a Sgt Pepper jacket. The real model for Stargrave, indicated by the references to an incestuous relationship with his sister and the arch dialogue, is Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius. (Although Stargrave is a playful homage, I don’t think Moorcock was very impressed.) Cornelius, the ‘rock and roll Messiah’, the ‘English Assassin’, was Moorcock’s own attempt to deal with key concerns in the post-war period: violence, post-colonial struggles, sex and rock music, fraying of the social fabric, the condition of London. Starting off as a kind of 60s super-spy variant, Cornelius became the vehicle for several New Worlds writers to play with the ‘nature of the catastrophe’, before Moorcock ‘took him back’ (in the words of John Clute) in the quartet of novels published between 1969 and 1977, where the fragmented, non-linear form was pushed in a much more melancholic direction.
In an interview published in Modem Times 2.0, Moorcock rationalises this by answering: ‘I modified the Cornelius books as I went along because too many you men were poncing about thinking it was cool to pose around being ‘amoral’. Like many writers attracted to SF, I’m intensely moralistic’ (p.111). In the same answer – to a question which asks why Moorcock describes himself as an anarchist rather than a Marxist – he states: ‘it’s a philosophical/ moral position from which I can easily make quick decisions of pretty much every kind. My anarchism informs my pro-feminism, for instance. I happen to believe as a writer that words are action and that we have to be able to stand by our actions and accept any consequences of our actions’ (p.111).

Moorcock’s anarchism is partly manifested in the ongoing flux between order and disorder in his novels, and in a sense, anarchism provides a kind of vital balance between the two: not the ‘order’ of tyranny, bureaucracy or even Utopia (nor even the order of the ‘heat death of the universe’), but the human order of collectivity, change, desire and everyday life. It’s clear that Moorcock locates this ‘anarchic’ order in the streets of Notting Hill/ Ladbroke Grove before London’s colonization by Capital and ‘the suburban’; in Modem Times 2.0 the narrative is bookended by two almost-sentimental sections located there in Christmas 1962. If there is nostalgia, though, it’s really for the period that follows and flows from this: Moorcock says, in ‘My Londons’, ‘through that era we called “the 60s” – which really ran from about 1963 with the Beatles first No.1 single to around 1978 with Stiff’s second tour – we continued to experiment in almost every field and genre’ (p.85). In Mother London (1988), Moorcock locates this in the chapter called ‘Variable Currents’ in 1970, and in particular at a fair (or appropriately, carnival) in which the characters ‘would all gladly live this instant forever’ (p.371). This chapter is the high tide of the 1960s, a happy whirl (embodied in the merry-go-round) which has yet to fling itself to pieces. The anarchic centre still holds.

Moorcock, Moore, Morrison, Macleod: all of these writers construct fictions with more-or-less explicit negotiation with the theory and practice of Anarchy, and also with the cultural politics of the period between 1963/4 and the end of the 1970s, the end of the post-war British settlement, the beginning of the neo-liberal project. What I haven’t stressed enough is the playfulness with which each deals with this history; although absolutely serious, none of these texts is solemn. I find the Cornelius books in particular very funny. It is in that spirit, of hope and of laughter, that these books illuminate their representations of anarchy.

Macleod, Ken, The Star Fraction (1995) (London: Orbit, 2004)
Moore, Alan, and David Lloyd, V for Vendetta (New York: DC, 1990)
Moorcock, Michael, Modem Times 2.0 (Oakland CA: PM Press, 2011)
Moorcock, Michael, Mother London (1988) (London: Scribner, 2000)
Morrison, Grant, et al, The Invisibles: Entropy in the UK (New York: DC/Vertigo, 2001)

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The deep above

The film Gravity ends with a splashdown, as did the American Gemini and Apollo missions, whereas the Soviet space program opted for a dry, bone-rattling landing on the Russian steppe. For NASA, then, the space program is inextricably linked to the ocean. The launching grounds are, of course, on the Florida coast, at Cape Canaveral; astronauts train for zero-g EVAs in a large pool, to simulate weightlessness; and the discourse of space exploration recapitulates that of the maritime, from ‘voyages’ to ‘ships’ to ‘deep’ space to the very names given to NASA craft: Discovery, Endeavour, Atlantis. At the same time, deep-dive films often, perhaps unsurprisingly, echo the cramped, functional interiors of NASA vehicles: sweaty cabins crewed by hard-bitten professionals battling an inhospitable, indeed deadly external environment from within small pressurised canisters.

 In Sphere (1998) and in The Abyss (1989), where ‘non-terrestrials’ are discovered in the ocean deeps, this claustrophobic confinement is countered by the view out of the window (or porthole), the vast unknowable deeps which bring on a kind of (pardon the pun) sublime. These films, with denouements of ‘alien’ craft emerging from the ocean depths (a visual conceit repeated rather enjoyably near the beginning of Star Trek Into Darkness), make the connection between the depths of space and the depths of the ocean particularly explicit. As a further example, Arthur C. Clarke, author of that great deep-space fiction 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), went to live in Sri Lanka and had a fascination with the ocean; the science-fictional connection between the ocean and the space beyond this sea-blue planet runs very deep indeed. (I also remember an Asimov short called ‘Waterclap’ in The Bicentennial Man (1976) – apparently itself begun as a treatment for film – which featured a submarine habitat called ‘Ocean Deep’ in strategic competition with ‘Luna City’, but the granddaddy of oceanic SF is of course Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1860): as I said, very deep indeed.)

Ian Sales’ intriguing new book, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (Whippleshield, 2013), the third in his Apollo Quartet of alternate-history SF, is split into two distinct narratives, one of which is an alternative history of the Mercury/Gemini/ Apollo programs, in which an ongoing Korean War means that the NASA craft are crewed by female astronauts, and the other concerns a bathyscaphe dive to retrieve a spy-satellite film ‘bucket’ containing photographs of Sino-Soviet military build-up on the North Korean border. In the previous novellas Sales had used the technique of double narrative time-frames to focus his extrapolation of divergent post-war histories. In Adrift on the Sea of Rains (note the marine language), moonbase commander Peterson’s catastrophic error of judgement upon embarked on a mission to help rescue his marooned colleagues is, in part, rationalised by scenes of his role as a hawkish Cold Warrior; in The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself (the title of this and the current book are derived from Apollo-themed quotations given as epigraphs) the narrative switches between 1979/80, when Bradley Elliott becomes the first man to walk on Mars, and 1999, when he travels to a far-distant exo-planet aboard a craft using the very alien technology that Elliott himself discovered on the surface of the red planet. In Then Will The Great Ocean, the two narrative threads seem distinct and separate worlds. 

Both the earlier novellas use appendix material to act as evidentiary matter for the alternative histories Sales proposes: in Adrift, an Apollo program that is appropriated by the US military and carries on into the mid-1970s to construct a moonbase, whose crew are stranded when Earth descends into a catastrophic nuclear war; and in The Eye, that Armstrong aborted the Apollo 11 landing, allowing the Soviet Union to land the first man on the Moon, precipitating a NASA ‘Ares’ program to be the first to land on Mars. The appendices are organised alphabetically, a kind of glossary or mini-encyclopaedia, re-articulating chronology in a textual form that opens up the novella in interesting ways. The appendices are at once a supplement (the narratives can be enjoyed without them) but are also central to Sales extrapolative method. The encyclopaedic form is a kind of extrapolation/ legitimation, working to deepen or expand the narrative world but also to make it more concrete as a historical extrapolation; at the same time, of course, as with all formal play with this kind of apparatus, the effect is also self-reflexive, to foreground the text as a text. I was reminded of Tony White’s method in Shackleton’s Man Goes South (published by the Science Museum), which intercuts fictional and non-fictional sections in a technique which is really ‘critical/creative’, appropriating the forms of British disaster fiction (and making explicit references to Michael Moorcock’s own re-writings of the form of the scientific romance in the Nomads trilogy) to make an explicitly political point about climate change.

In Then Will The Great Ocean, the relation between narrative and ‘appendix’ (non-fictional) material that ‘explains’ the extrapolative method is different: more directly historical, even polemical, and also not bracketed off as a supplementary ‘appendix’, rather following directly from the narrative. Sales gives us the real histories of the ‘Mercury 13’ women who undertook the same physiological testing as the male NASA astronauts in a privately funded program; the 13 women passed ‘Phase I’ of the testing, and the only one to pass ‘Phase III’, Geraldyn ‘Jerrie’Cobb, is the narrative focus of the ‘Up’ (space) sections of Then Will The Great Ocean. He also outlines the career of the bathyscaphe Trieste/Trieste II, the submersible that features in the ‘Down’  (oceanic) sections, whose historical mission to retrieve a film ‘bucket’ from the Pacific Ocean in 1971 seems to be the model for the events narrated in the novella. The question is, why expose the historical basis of the extrapolation in this way?

The section on the female ‘astronauts’ is clearly polemical; at the very end, Sales notes that it was not until 1983 that NASA sent a woman crew-member into space (Dr Sally Ride), and not until 1999 that a NASA mission had a female commander (Eileen Collins). (What Sales does not state is that Judith Resnik and Christa McAuliffe, aboard Challenger, and Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark, aboard Columbia, lost their lives on Shuttle missions. The fate of mission specialist Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) in Gravity is thought-provoking if read against these histories.)

Sales’ commitment to working towards establishing gender equality in SF (and restituting a ‘lost’ history of women writing SF) is demonstrated in his involvement in the SF Mistressworks project, and in Then Will The Great Ocean the focus on an alternative history where female astronauts are the norm seems an overt act of historical recuperation. The exclusion of women from the NASA program is revealed to be purely ideological, if a woman such as Jerrie Cobb is as physiologically, psychologically and technically capable of enduring the rigours of spaceflight as their male counterparts. Cobb is markedly different from either Adrift’s Peterson – whose violent action on seeing ‘our’ world’s Mir space station seems, upon re-reading, something like psychosis – or The Eye’s Bradley Elliott, who is very much a man alone, emotionally, spiritually and physically. Rather than the military man or career pilot (the two masculine avenues into the astronaut program), both implicated in an institutional and philosophical narrowness of mind, Cobb is religious as well as ambitious, full of wonder for the universe as well as inhabiting a burning will to succeed. Would the NASA program be different if it had been crewed by women? Then Will The Great Ocean's realistic answer is: perhaps not.

For Cobb, though, spaceflight is an encounter with God’s creation. On an EVA, Cobb is so intoxicated by the freedom of spacewalking and her sense that she is completing God’s purpose (as well as NASA’s mission) that she barely finds the will to re-enter the capsule. Sales politicises this sense of freedom by referring to Rosie the Riveter, and this admixture of a sublime sensibility and feminist politics lends Cobb a particular interest. McIntyre, the commander of the bathyscaphe, is, by contrast, a rather shrunken figure, who is immensely relieved to return to the surface. (He prefers diving in shallower waters.) Even though he imagines himself as Orpheus, descending into the underworld (mis-remembering the myth), it is Cobb, through her perception of the sublimity of even low Earth orbit, that ascends to an ‘epic’ grandeur of vision. (By contrast, Gravity’s Ryan Stone, battling disaster, says at one point: ‘I hate space’.) The fourth book in the Quartet will apparently be called All That Outer Space Allows , the reference to Douglas Sirk melodrama a rather tempting prospect with regard to revisions of gender representation in NASA/space fictions.

So far, then, so interesting. But when Sales, in his Acknowledgements, reveals that writing Then Will The Great Ocean was ‘much more of a challenge than I’d expected’, my feeling that this novella didn’t work quite as well as the previous two began to crystallize. The timelines of both ‘Up’ and ‘Down’ narratives of the novella are different, and very obliquely managed indeed, so getting a sense of when and how the events take place becomes a kind of puzzle. While the 1969 dive of the Trieste II in ‘Down’ returns photos of the Sino-Soviet build-up, presaging war to come, in the Cobb narrative the Korean War is drawing to a close in the final section, which again seems to be in 1969, but a rather different one.

The rationale for the female astronaut crews – that all the male pilots are on combat duty in Korea – seemed to me not very watertight; after all, the Gemini and Apollo missions took place while US military involvement in Vietnam was ongoing (particularly at its height during Gemini). And would the Korean War have lasted 16 more years? Unlike the asymmetric, guerrilla nature of much of the Vietnam conflict, Korea was much more of a conventional war to begin with, and then became a kind of stalemate; it’s difficult to think that, even in this manner, it would have ground on for so long. After his election in 1952, indeed, Eisenhower visited Korea to investigate what might bring the war to a close.

Interestingly, Sales plays around with the historical timeline, and it seems that Ike is President from 1956-63, as Kennedy is the ‘new’ President in 1964. So who won the 1952 election? Truman (who declined to run after performing badly in the Democratic primaries)? Adlai Stevenson (who was well beaten by Eisenhower in ’52)? Another Republican? It’s a gap that piques my interest, as it’s clearly deliberate, but I can’t quite diagnose the reason for it. As all the different timelines in the Quartet refract each other, rather than intersect, I can’t see this be ‘explained’ in the closing book.

What is clear, though, is Sales’ critique of the structural implication between the NASA space program and US militarism. In Adrift, the seeming inescapability of the Cold War mentality leads Peterson to an act of (self-)destruction; in Then Will The Great Ocean, the recovery of the film ‘bucket’ augurs global war. Not only the Cold War, but a very hot one, looms over all of the Apollo Quartet novellas published so far.

In Gravity, it is the debris from a Russian spy satellite – incompletely  destroyed by the Russians themselves – that precipitates the ‘Kessler syndrome’ (or ‘ablation cascade’ of runaway collisions that create an orbiting field of debris) which causes the disastrous loss of several spacecraft and Ryan Stone’s attempts to survive and get back home. In Gravity and in Sales’ novellas, the dreams of ascension to the plane of sublimity, to be in a wondrous free-fall, are fragile indeed, hemmed in as they are by militarism, and are as fragile as the technology that propels the (male and female) astronauts out of the Earth’s atmosphere and protects them from cold, hard vacuum. Gravity’s astonishing transitions from inside to outside, from outside to inside of spacecraft and environment suits emphasise that technological fragility at the same time as the 3D CGI provides an intense technological sublime. In the case of Then Will The Great Ocean’s Jerrie Cobb, as in the case of Ryan Stone, and for all Sales’ hard-SF terminology, these space fictions assume a kind of spiritual outlook, emphasising a coming to terms with the universe. Cobb and Stone do not attempt to ‘conquer’ the void nor simply look out of the porthole. The necessity is to encounter space, in all its terrifying and wondrous sublimity.    

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Musicals, Michael Bay and Utopia

I met my friend and colleague Bruce Bennett yesterday, and the subject of Michael Bay came up.  Bruce is interested in the excessive hyper-kineticism of Bay’s work as diagnostic of contemporary American culture, and in the course of our conversation, Bruce mentioned Bay’s interest in the musical.  This made a lot of sense to me: spectacle cinema tout court, as is well known, has strong structural affinities with the musical, in its generic ability to ‘suspend’ the narrative and enter into different conditions of cinematic time and space, privileging spectacular and/or performative elements (a song or dance routine, or sfx sequence).  What makes these affinities particularly striking is the spectatorial affect: viewers do not (if trained in the genre’s visual grammar) ‘pop out’ of the cinematic experience when the films shifts into song or dance or effects spectacle, and in fact the ‘wow factor’ of bodies doing impossible or extraordinary things in space is one of the pleasures of this type of cinema.

One of the things that the musical, or indeed spectacle/sfx cinema is able to produce is a kind of cinematic jouissance (as Roland Barthes describes in The Pleasure of the Text), a kind of ecstatic en-joy-ment of the cinematic technology itself, a joy which is produced by the shifting appreciation of the visual spectacle (excitement produced by a chase sequence for instance) AND of the imaging technologies that bring it to the screen (starships zooming about in ‘free’ space); of story and technology, to put it simply. This jouissance could then be differentiated from the ‘pleasures’ (plaisir) of classical Hollywood cinema (akin to those Barthes identifies with the ‘readerly’ text of bourgeois realism in S/Z), the musical excepted. The concept of jouissance would help explain the rather gleeful, playful tone of Michael Bay’s work, its knowing or parodic strategies, the performance styles of Bay’s actors (think of Steve Buscemi’s turns) and the excessive or overflowing energies of its hyper-genetic editing which, I must confess, tend to make my head sing.

One of Bay’s more unusual films is The Island, which starts off as a classical utopia, with mise-en-scène clearly indebted to 1970s dystopian films such as George Lucas’s THX1138 (1970) or Michael Anderson’s Logan’s Run (1976).  After about an hour, with the escape of the protagonists from the dystopian Island of the title, the film generically and topographically overflows and becomes a chase film, only finally returning (spatially) to the utopian/dystopian paradigm for the narrative closure. What is particularly interesting about The Island is its multiple occlusions of the machinery of utopia: the true nature of the utopian society is hidden from the protagonists; the society is itself hidden from the real world, buried in underground bunkers in the American Desert; the protagonist becomes hidden in the identity of someone else; and towards the end the very plots mechanism – when Scarlett Johansson is ‘recaptured’ by the corporation – is hidden from viewers.  The idea of hidden machinery is a recurrent one in science fiction of course, and in the techno-utopian imagination (such as in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards from the Year 2000) the very structures of utopian society itself are enabled by the smooth running of a technologically-advanced machinery which are largely runs ‘in the background’ (or literally underground).

The rhetorical strategies of ‘the hidden’ would seem to run counter to the imperatives of spectacle, of joyful visibility, that one finds in sfx cinema and in the musical.  However, the appearance of effortless mobility is always produced by a hidden labour.  This is most overt in music and dance sequences, when ‘spontaneous’ eruptions of dance and song are, of course, built upon the hard labour of choreography, rehearsal and direction.  In the musicals of Fred Astaire, the hidden labour of the dance routine is most striking. Astaire, with his elegant, effortlessly persona, his dance style which seems barely to touch ground at all, is a body in space (a material thing: he is clearly doing the steps himself), but one which appears weightless.  This gossamer connection to the real conditions of space, work and weight is exemplified in the famous sequence in Royal Wedding where, through the pro-filmic trickery of a rotating room, Astaire defies gravity by dancing on the ceiling. In the service of cinematic jouissance, the joy of the dance, the multiple machineries are hidden.

If Astaire is weightless, then Gene Kelly is all materiality, all masculine physicality. (Not for nothing does he wear tight-fitting trousers, unlike Fred Astaire’s elegant line of leg.) Kelly is, of course, associated with the so-called ‘integrated’ musical produced by MGM in the late 1940s and 1950s, directed by Vincente Minnelli or Kelly himself (with Stanley Donen), produced by the Arthur Freed unit.  The high-water mark of this mode is, in my mind, Singin’ in the Rain (1952), an extraordinary compendium and playful articulation of the film of musical’s own history.  In an early sequence, where Don Lockwood (Kelly) speaks to a crowd outside a film premiere, the film undercuts Lockwood’s voice track (a sentimentalised version of the ‘rise to stardom’) with shorter vignettes which showed his and Cosmo Brown’s (Dennis O’Connor) ‘real’ history, the machinery of labour which lionises Lockwood’s tagline, ‘dignity, always dignity’.  While seeming to offer the ‘truth’ of Hollywood’s productive machinery (don’t forget that Kathy Selden, played by Debbie Reynolds, is ‘hidden’ behind the curtains at the film’s conclusion, singing for Lina (Jean Hagen)), Singin’ in the Rain in fact offers a cinematic sleight of hand where the machinery is still hidden (completing the ‘gag’ of Kathy singing for Lena, it is actually Betty Noyes' voice singing on the soundtrack ‘for’ Reynolds).

The film’s title song is justly famous for its jouissance, its inhabitation and representation of joy, and the wonderfully integrated cinematic means by which this is presented (in terms of movement, editing and soundtrack).  When I teach film, I usually find a reason for showing this scene, if nothing else to demonstrates the expressive and affective potential of Hollywood cinema. The scene itself shifts in its use of space subtly as the song progresses.  After Don kisses Kathy goodnight on a ‘real’ street set, music begins on the soundtrack and Kelly begins to sing and dance.  From continuity-style time and space, the film shifts fluidly into longer takes (to give time for Kelly’s expressive choreography) and, as Kelly dances past the storefronts, orients a front-on, to-camera, proscenium-style performance space familiar from an older style of on-stage musical (one which is still present in the later form, but which is literally integrated into a broader range of technical and spectacular strategies). This scene, in a sense, plays with ‘dimensionality’: sometimes the space is perspectival, ‘3-D’, and sometimes it is shallow, stage-like.

The point at which hair stands upon my head, and a smile always appears on my face, is when the song moves to a crescendo, the full orchestra comes flowing in, and Kelly dances circles in the wide street, the umbrella held like a dance partner.  At this point, Kelley abandons the shallow ‘stage’ of the sidewalk, and to emphasize the spatial shift, the film uses a crane shot, moving vertically and looking down on Kelly gyrating in ‘free’ space.  This shift back to three-dimensionality is meant to impart, I think, that ‘this is real’: the performance space has been broached, boundaries overflowed, jouissance spills out of the screen itself into the ‘real’. It is temporary, of course; the appearance of the beat cop re-establishes behavioural bounds (and the sequence ends).  But the moment is expressive and emotional centre of the film, and epitomises the capabilities of the musical like no other.  That it takes place in the rain, in the element of flow and overflow, is a symbolic bonus.

In a sense, I feel this moment is the most utopian in cinema, because the jouissance is willed, fabricated, achieved by the hidden machinery and labour that brings it to the screen.  It seems the most ‘natural’ thing on earth, but is, of course, multiply artificial. It offers the most benign, joyful view of human beings, one in which love reigns o’er all. The dream to live in that moment is properly utopian. This is, perhaps, the imperative behind the kinetic spectacle of Michael Bay’s films: they want to express that hair-raising moment, to stretch it out for two hours or more, which can ultimately be wearying. Going back to The Island, when the two protagonists escape from dystopia and enter Bay’s territory, the kinetic chase film, they are not escaping into the ‘real’ (as the freed clones seem to do at the end of the film); instead, they are escaping into cinema, for it is that which is the true expression of Michael Bay’s utopian dreaming.

*Bruce has alerted me to the half-unconscious debt this piece owes to Richard Dyer's essay 'Entertainment and Utopia' in its connection between utopian desire and the musical; I should also say that the brilliant work of Steven Cohan on Gene Kelly should be acknowledged as a deep influence. 

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Ball of Confusion

I was given the latest of Tony Benn's published diaries, indeed the last, A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine, for Christmas, and it dovetails well with my pre-holiday reading, Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. Both are texts that inhabit a sense of political defeat, the defeat of leftist parties and organisations, or in Benn's case, dictated at the time of Brown's tenure as PM in the last Labour government, a kind of self-betrayal. It's strange to read Benn's entries for that time, a period when I was personally deeply unhappy and struggling with difficult things in my personal life, and see how conflicted Benn is. On one hand, he despises New Labour, and is happy to see its defeat; yet  he is far-sighted enough to know that the economic crisis of 2008 would have long-lasting effects, that prognostications of a 'two-year' recession were optimistic at best (delusory at worst), and that the fall-out might well be a shift to the right and a coalition government. Benn struggles to keep up his punishing schedule of speeches and events in the face of declining health, advancing years, and intimations of his own mortality. Regularly his entries express contentment if death were suddenly to visit him; the flame of life, of political struggle, of hope, lingers, but a sense of the necessity to have some kind of reckoning with his own life, and to manage the end of it, seems increasingly urgent.

It's the only book of Benn's diaries that I have read, but it has whetted my desire to go back and look at the earlier ones, especially when he was in the political thick of it (rather than having become a 'national treasure', something about which he is clearly deeply ambivalent). But, just like Orwell, amidst the wreckage of defeat, Benn retains hope in the potential for human beings to come together, to achieve political ends that improve the lot of the majority of people rather than just a privileged few. When he cites that Labour manifesto on 1945, its simplicity and directness rings across the years: 'The nation wants food, work and homes. It wants more than that - it wants good food in plenty, useful work for all, and comfortable, labour - saving homes that take full advantage of the resources of modern science and productive industry. It wants a high and rising standard of living, security for all against a rainy day, an educational system that will give every boy and girl a chance to develop the best that is in them'. (The whole text can be found here.) In an age of foodbanks, unemployment and yet another housing price bubble caused by a shortage of housing, it's troubling to realise just how much remains to be done even to bring that vision into permanent being; indeed, protect it against those who wish to roll back the massive social gains of the immediate post-war years, in terms of the NHS or in education.

I'm close to finishing a project that has been hanging over my head for longer than I would care to confess, and in doing so, I'm returning to an old theme: utopia and dystopia. I've always been attracted more to dystopias (and in fact wrote my doctoral thesis on American dystopias), like most. For someone of my generation, it suits the tenor of my times: coming to voting age in the 1980s, growing up in Thatcherite Essex that I felt deeply uncomfortable with, in another period of political defeat for the left, the world painted in dystopian colours is one that I recognised all too easily. Yet, as I've grown older, the necessity for utopia, of being able to imagine a future better that what we live through today, has come to seem to me absolutely crucial. That, I would say, is the great victory of the Right in today's world: being able to imagine and articulate the other of this fractured, anxious, 'austerity'-ridden place and time has become increasingly difficult. You only have to listen to BBC Radio 4's Today programme (or the storm-in-a-teacup that followed PJ Harvey's guest editorship of the programme over Christmas, where voices of dissent were actually given airtime) with half a critical ear to diagnose a pro-business, pro-establishment, conservative consensus that simply ignores what is politically inconvenient. (Benn notes the BBC's omissions with a kind of glee: 'twas ever thus.) Voices that might have something else to say, such as the admirably vocal and energetic Owen Jones, have to fight to be heard.

Sometimes, of course, I look back to the future, particularly to the 1960s, as a resource, as a means of generating hope (rather than succumbing to nostalgia for the future). Over the last few days, a lot of psychedelic soul has been rattling around my head, and in particular The Temptations' brilliant 'Ball of Confusion'. Though the lyrics seem full of anxiety - ‘So round and around and around we go/ Where the world's headed, nobody knows/ Great googamooga! Can't you hear me talkin' to you?/ Just a Ball of Confusion/ That's what the world is today’ - the music is driving, uplifting, inspiring. The band doesn't just play on: it makes you want to get up, to sing, to shout. To make your voice heard. So, struggling with that sense of defeat, of confusion, of the hopelessness of dystopia, I return once and again to those things that bring me up, to give me energy and hope.

Our Christmas tree has come down today, and I'm not looking forward to getting back to work with much sense of excitement or anticipation. But I'm determined that I'm going to lend my voice and any other powers to try, in 2014, not to give in to despair, to continue to hope and work for a better future, to enlist myself on the side of utopia. 'Great googamooga!', as George Orwell would undoubtedly not have said.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The odious machine

I am on strike today. I have been struggling of late with a sense of despair about the state of contemporary life, and not knowing what to do about it. None of the mainstream political parties in Britain reflect my values, my sense of what is fair and equitable, my growing anger and horror at a country run for and by millionaires while, at our local Tesco, volunteers ask for donations to the food bank, because people do not have enough money to eat, or to feed their children.

I am a university lecturer. I teach English. I have been struggling of late to make sense of a workplace whose principles run counter to what I believe a university should be and what it should be for: the pursuit of learning, of research and scholarship into science, into society, into culture, of dissemination of knowledge that has a direct social and political function, an understanding of the world that helps people make better lives, personally and collectively: NOT a machine for making money, NOT a business, NOT a provider of services for customers, NOT a place which comes to represent the destructive and amoral principles of neo-liberal, marketised capitalism.

My own profession has been supine for far too long. It has stood by while its own members have been disciplined under RAE and REF, have been turned into entrepreneurs whose time is taken up with (increasingly futile) grant bids, who have been pacified and made grateful for a declining share in the fruits of their own productivity; who fought nowhere near hard enough against student loans, and their increase to £9000 a year; who fail to make common cause with their own student body and the administrative and support staff who enable their working lives.

I have been haunted by this speech, made 49 years and one day ago, by Mario Savio, one of the student leaders of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, who even in 1964 skewers the marketisation of the university and whose call for direct action sends a shiver up my spine:

"We have an autocracy which runs this university. It's managed. We asked the following: if President Kerr actually tried to get something more liberal out of the Regents in his telephone conversation, why didn't he make some public statement to that effect? And the answer we received -- from a well-meaning liberal -- was the following: He said, "Would you ever imagine the manager of a firm making a statement publicly in opposition to his board of directors?" That's the answer! Now, I ask you to consider: if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the board of directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I'll tell you something: the faculty are a bunch of employees, and we're the raw material! But we're a bunch of raw material[s] that don't mean to have any process upon us, don't mean to be made into any product, don't mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We're human beings!

"There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!"

Today I am on strike, but I take most heart from the fact that at the University of Birmingham, at the University of Sussex, and on campuses and in other buildings at universities in the UK, students are following Mario Savio's lead and putting their bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, attempting to demonstrate to those who presume to style themselves 'the University' that the privatisation of student loans, the marketisation of higher education, the deliberate undermining and diminishment of all kinds of education (on this day of the flawed and ideological PISA global student 'table') into processing 'for the needs of business', must and will be opposed.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Out of Time

Today is, of course, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F Kennedy, as well as that of the deaths of Aldous Huxley and CS Lewis. I note with interest that today’s Google doodle does not correspond to any of these three men, but to the 50th anniversary of Dr Who, which was first broadcast the evening following these events. But the advent of a popular science fiction tv series based upon the wanderings and adventures of a time traveller seems curiously appropriate to 1963, somehow.

Sometimes I feel myself to be out of time. Born in 1969, I can claim ownership to that decade not only because I was born in its fading months (I was round for the Apollo 11 landings, for Altamont Speedway, for the deaths by drowning of Brian Jones and Mary Jo Kopechne, for My Lai, for the first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus; hell, John and Yoko got married on the day of my birth), but because growing up, the Sixties were immediate history. My Dad told me about 60s tv before it was repeated (I watched with wonder when The Prisoner, or The Avengers, was shown on terrestrial tv); the music played in our house was from the decade; the first lp that I ever owned was a Beatles compilation (A Collection of Beatles Oldies... but Goldies, 1966, which I still have), proved by my childish handwriting scrawled on the back cover.

It’s not that I’m prey to nostalgia for the decade; I don’t remember it. But there’s something about it that speaks to me, I return to the music and the films and the literature of the decade again and again, I write about it a lot (I’m due to complete a book on science fiction of the 1960s next year, and have published a fair few articles about the decade, from Len Deighton and food to Brian Jones as Orpheus). The events of that decade, including the Kennedy assassination, have a power over my imagination that is hard to explain. Why does it matter to me? What is it about the Ballardian mantra of Dealey Plaza, the Lincoln convertible, Jackie Kennedy, the Mannlicher carbine and book depository, which pervades my imagination?

Last year I published an experimental article, in the vein of the New Wave sf writers like Ballard and Moorcock, directly negotiating the Kennedy assassination and the figure of Oswald (and the curious figure of Charles Whitman, the shooter at the University of Texas at Austin, who used the campus tower in the summer of ’66 to kill 17 people, and who knew he was becoming deranged). I’ve read Mailer’s Oswald’s Story, of course, and Delillo’s Libra; but I’m suspicious of reading the Kennedy assassination as the ‘end of innocence’, or a kind of origin point for contemporary disillusion and lack of faith in the future: in the States, Johnson’s Civil rights and Great Society programs necessarily followed Kennedy’s death; and in Britain, the hopes expressed in Wilson’s ‘White Heat’ speech, and the development of the then ‘new’ universities (my own, Lancaster, in 1964) or the Open University (founded in 1969), the promise of social democracy and changes in the economic fabric of Britain, progressive legislation in terms of the franchise and gay rights, were all current up to the later 1960s.

Although Tony and Doug went down the Time Tunnel in 1966, my preferred model for the 1960s time travel narrative is Michael Moorcock’s Cornelius stories, which use shifts in time to re-imagine, and critique, post-war London, the legacies of Empire, and the fabrics of popular and counter-culture in the mid- to late-60s. Cornelius, in the short stories published in New Worlds, was a parodic adventurer, a counter-culture assassin, an emblematic figure of the Dionysian 60s. By the time Moorcock ‘took back’ Cornelius (in the words of John Clute) in the quartet of novels published from 1965 to 1980, the ‘character’ of the ‘rock and roll messiah’ had itself been smashed and transmitted through time and space, leaving him, in The English Assassin, as a near-corpse in a coffin, dragged around for much of the novel. Jerry wants to go home, but there isn’t one, because his home was the 60s, rather than Ladbroke Grove, and there’s no going back there.

Stephen King’s 700-page 11.22.1963 sits forbiddingly next to my bed, daring me to take it on. (I’m trying to get through Doctor Sleep first.) King’s text, mixing up time travel narrative, with classic ‘what if?’ and paradox tropes, with the inaugural event of the ‘Sixties’, is a pregnant one for me. I’ve yet to take it on, though plan to soon. Travelling back to 1963, or 1964 (Mods and Rockers on Brighton beach), or 1966 (for so many reasons), is a tremendous fantasy, particularly for someone, like me, who is so invested, embedded even, in the images and narratives and ideas and texts of the Sixties. I suffer, and I think always have done, from a sense of belatedness, of being born too late (for the Sixties, for Punk); recently I have also suffered from a sense that wherever I go, physically or mentally, I’m always haunting someone else’s steps, that someone else has always got there before me. This is another symptom of a collapse of the future, and in a sense, this is what Simon Reynolds diagnoses in Retromania, in relation to the Ghost Box music artists like Belbury Poly who seem to inhabit a ‘nostalgia for the future’: to return to the Sixties is not a return to the past, but it is a return to the possibility of a future seemingly foreclosed by neo-liberal late capitalism in all its forms.

So, I do not lament that JFK has been supplanted by the multiple Doctors, from Hartnell to Capaldi, for this time-travelling exile, born in the 1960s but who cannot return home, seems to embody an absolute longing for but terrible anxiety about the future that is diagnostic of our times. It seems, in many ways, we are all time travellers now.