Pandemonium*, or an infernal cacophony

Here’s something different.  Something personal.  Something spoken. 

Words. Too many words. Too many books. 

I scanned the LRB this week and saw advert after advert for books, published by American University presses, books that may be sold to libraries, books whose print runs maybe in the hundreds, books no-one will read. 

As an academic working in Britain, we are now on the treadmill known as REF, the submission of four items (books, articles) to a panel which judges the quality of your work. [I gave up on speaking and started to type here.] This system requires continuing productivity, churning out articles, books and so on, without rest, without thought, without pause, without silence.

There is only the ongoing clamour of voices, all wanting to say something, all wanting to be heard.

Often the journals in which articles are published are hidden behind paywalls that only those with the economic power of the institutional subscription gives them access to, or the books are published in hardback with a cover price of £60. Often an article or a book is published that speaks only to those who themselves publish articles and books in an endless round, because no-one else has access. Self-publication is completely frowned upon inside the academy (nothing self-published could be submitted to REF; it has to be produced inside the traditional institutions of communication); (open-access) internet is still deemed inferior to print (and in my own university, the library is essentially turning away from large-scale print acquisitions); publishing outside a hierarchy of ‘quality’ journals means excluding yourself. Publishers are extremely conservative and would rather a re-working of the same old forms, ideas and texts because newness and innovation is a risk in a wobbly marketplace. And why should they risk their money?

Sometimes I feel like Kilgore Trout, the old science fiction writer who recurs in Kurt Vonnegut’s fictions. In Timequake, Vonnegut imagines Trout as an old man, homeless, who still carries on writing short stories but, with no magazine market to which to sell them, simply leaves the shelter he sleeps in and deposits the most recent story in the trash bin.

Everyone speaks; nobody listens.

Today I googled ‘Beckett silence’, as I was trying to feel my way through this reaction against words. (My old friend uncle Bill Burroughs, with his conception of the ‘Word Virus’ that occupies the human being and keeps speaking, talking, words words words incessantly, makes more sense to me now than he ever has. RUB OUT THE WORD.) I came across a little blog entry at This Space, which considered the idea of silence in an admirably economic way. I then looked down at the comments at saw that several of the comments appended a URL of their own blog. (I notice commenters below the line doing this and it irritates me.) And I thought: the commenters aren’t actually particularly engaged with what’s being written. They’re advertising their own voices.

Everybody speaks; nobody listens.

In a world of iPods, iPads, smartphones, the computer I’m writing on and its ambient hum, there is no silence. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of transmission, particularly artistic inspiration as transmission, symbolised by the poet Orpheus writing down poems broadcast over the radio in Death’s limousine in Cocteau’s Orphée, an image taken up by Tom McCarthy in his INS essays and ‘Transmission and the Individual Remix’. I wrote about what I called ‘Tape Spectra’ here, concerning ‘haunted’ media technologies and phenomena such as EVP (the recording of ghost voices on tape), what Joe Banks calls ‘Rorschach Audio’ (the human brain processing white noise to create the impression of signals, where no signals exist); but it seems to me that the clamour of voices, everyone wanting to be a writer (or a pop star on X Factor), to publish a book, to write a blog, to have their voice heard, is in fact a condition of the infernal cacophony** of voices that were are surrounded by every day. Not only do we make signals from noise, we want to shout above the clamour.

What I’m saying is important!

Yes, no, yes, no. Both. I’m indicting myself here, of course; I have three books currently under contract or being considered, with a fourth written; I’ve already published four. And who reads them? Some students, hopefully. And I write this blog. Occasionally.

This isn’t me wondering whether I’m talking into a void. There is no void. There is only noise.  

Then why write? That is, indeed, the question. Do I write because I have to, as many writers confess? I write sometimes because I have to. It’s my job. Not from hunger, or need, though. But I often play chicken with deadlines because I can’t sit down to write, I feel blocked. Like Orphée, I’m waiting for the radio to come on, waiting for the signals broadcast from somewhere.

Not that I want to mystify the writing process, make it some kind of occult transaction or part of an expression of Romantic ‘genius’. I’m very suspicious of that. But I wonder whether I do not want to make writing work: I want it to be mysterious, to feel the breeze blowing through my mind, to get excited by the transmissions I’m receiving.

In his last novel (just as Timequake was Vonnegut’s last novel), William Burroughs in The Western Lands describes an old writer who sits in front of his typewriter. A visionary book appears, hovering over the writing machine, and the writer types down what he reads. That image has stayed with me since I bought the book, on its hardback publication, back in 1987. I never knew quite why it was important to me but, 25 years later, it fits in with Orphée, with Tom McCarthy, with me sitting at the kitchen table right now typing this into a laptop.

Is this science fiction? Is Orphée?

Rather than Isherwood’s ‘I am a Camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking,’ I am a radio. Receiving, transmitting. Voices, words. Noise. Pandemonium.

* Pandemonium: the name Milton gives to the capital city of Hell - a place much on my mind the last few days - and the word for uproar, chaotic noise, confusion. Pan, panic, demons, noise, everywhere.

** ‘cacophony’: I just looked this up in Wikipedia, where it is contrasted with ‘euphony’, a pleasantness or beauty of sound present in poetry or literary prose. The work of the writer is then to draw euphony from the world’s cacophony, signal from noise, beauty from ugliness.


  1. "An image taken up by Tom McCarthy in his INS essays and ‘Transmission and the Individual Remix’"... and taken up in "Rorschach Audio" publications years earlier ;)


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