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

from mirror.co.uk
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.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Khora: the voice and the Essex shore

I went down to the Shorelines literary festival, held at Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, over the weekend. Leigh is the next town along the A13 from the town I grew up in and in which my family still live, Hadleigh; Leigh is where I worked for 2 years, and where my friend Ed lived, whose house, the Vicarage by St Clement’s church, was the rehearsal base for our band Tortoisehead, and the launching-place (and often late-night video watching) for our Friday and Saturday night nights out at a sequence of Leigh pubs (The Olde Smack Inn and latterly the Crooked Billet in Old Leigh; but mainly the Grand Hotel, the favourite watering-hole of the Feelgood’s singer Lee Brilleaux).

One of the sessions had a particularly poignant moment for myself and old friend Simon, who had also come down from elsewhere to sample the festival’s events. This was a group walk around Leigh in the company of Justin Hopper, whose poem sequence Public Record: Estuary memorialises the disasters and loss of life that regularly occurred in the Thames, crowded as it then was with shipping going up and down to London, barges and lighters traversing the coastline, and the Leigh fishing fleet. The first point of call was St Clement’s church, where a poem, ‘The Terror of Saint Clement’, was read, which commemorated the loss of the anchor of the Arctic exploration vessel the HMS Terror in the Thames mud, whose 1845 expedition, commanded by Sir John Franklin, ended in disaster when the ship became trapped in the ice, resulting in the death of over 100 men.

The churchyard is on a high point, the bluffs leading down steeply to the sea (now marked by houses on Leigh Hill, including the Vicarage); from there, you can look down over the Ray and (to the right) Two Tree Island and Canvey Island, and beyond, over the grey Thames, the lights of the Isle of Grain and the north Kent coast. The poem was engaging, in the fading afternoon light, but my own attention was split; for, over the wall of the churchyard, we could see the Vicarage, and the low outbuilding that had been our rehearsal space in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I could almost hear the sound of the band rehearsing, transmitted across the decades, signals picked up through my association with that place.

The connection between sound and place is one that has occupied my thinking over the last few weeks. I presented a short paper at a Lancaster conference on the Tour de France and Kraftwerk, and the relationship between the bicycle, mobility and modernity as transmitted through the electronic cadences of their music. In ‘Tour de France’, Kraftwerk also use the human breath as an aural punctuation, part of the rhythm of the track (the 2003 remaster, unlike the original 1983 track, begins with the breath, the human pump of heart and lungs preceding the sound of the machine, the sequenced rhythms of drum machine and synthesizers).  

The connection between electronic music, modernity and place has also been something I’ve been turning over, from the Ghost Box label to Box Springs Audio to the writings of Simon Reynolds, in particular Retromania. In that book (you can find it anticipated in some entries in his blog Reynold Retro), Reynolds suggests that the Ghost Box artists, and others like Pye Corner Audio, revisit a particular post-war British sensibility, a utopianism to do with popularizations of avant-garde practice (such as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop), progressive mass education (the new universities of the 60s, such as the one I work at, the Open University, and so on) and also a lingering adherence to Modernism in architecture.

The music of Pye Corner Audio, or Ghost Box artists such as Belbury Poly, uses electronic rhythms and synthesized textures that echo those of Kraftwerk (in particular Radio-Activity, 1975); it proved an illuminating connection, then, that Justin Hopper’s Public Record: Estuary readings had themselves been recorded and accompanied by Scanner, the recording name of Robin Rimbaud, a highly-prolific electronic musician and performer whose work, as the name suggests, is concerned with transmissions, electronic and white noise, shifting ambiences, fugitive pulses. It is ideal for putting Public Record: Estuary in place, of locating it, if not with the clichéd sound-set of waves, the tonking of rigging on metal masts, or even folk idioms. (Though it must be said that the ‘Intro’ track does feature something resembling a concertina.) Often, Scanner augments ambient washes and synth pads with choral voices, as well as the readers (Hopper and others, Essex voices) speaking the poems.

The connection between place and sound is expressed by Reynolds in his appropriation of the term ‘hauntology’, derived from Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx. ‘Hauntology’ derives from the aural proximity, in French of ‘ontology’ (the philosophical investigation of being) and ‘hantology’ (‘ghost-ology’, from the French verb for haunting, ‘hanter’).(Not to be confused with the even more pregnant French word for ghost, ‘revenant’.) Derrida suggests, through the idea of hauntology, that being is never full, complete, present; it is always ‘haunted’, somehow spectral. Reynolds took this idea in the mid-Noughties to characterise the work of recording artists like Belbury Poly or The Advisory Circle, ‘nostalgic for the future’, the future that has been foreclosed by late capitalism.

It’s a provocative idea, and one that certainly can be applied – carefully – to works like Public Record: Estuary, in its recorded form. In particular, Scanner’s use of voice – the choral – relates directly to articulations of place. The etymology of ‘choral’ goes back to the Greek ‘chorus’ (well-known from Greek tragedy), or khoros, which means a group that sings or recites poetry. Proximate to this is khora, described in Plato’s Timaeus, which means a space or receptacle, but which has connotations of being a space between, an interval, neither being nor non-being. Derrida takes this word to name an otherness which remains other; Julian Wolfreys takes up the idea of ‘chorography’ an Elizabethan word that denoted antiquarian approaches to mapping (cartography). Wolfreys, in an online article, relates this to the work of Iain Sinclair. In no coincidence, Sinclair, Macgillivray and Jem Finer performed to a ‘remix’ of Andrew Kotting’s film Swandown at Shorelines on Saturday night, in which Kotting’s work was re-worked as a meditation on space, the sea, the beach, and the voice.

The shoreline, the space between land and sea, manifested in Justin Hopper’s response to Leigh-on-Sea and its history in Public Record: Estuary, is the space in which to explore khoros/ khora, the relation between poetry and place, voice and landscape. My response to standing in St Clement’s churchyard is one that opened up, for me, my personal history in which space is articulated or mediated or transmitted through music, a missing point of triangulation in my own thinking until now. As well as being stimulating in many ways, Shorelines returned me to myself, as much as it returned me to Essex.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Nearly: a confession

So, a kind of confession. The kind a person might make on reaching what used to be called the ‘middle age’, when you’ve reached a point in professional life, a foothold; more than that, when you’ve reached solid ground, something near to achievement. Nearly.

Antonio Salieri is the patron saint of mediocrity; or at least, Peter Shaffer’s Salieri, I mean. In Amadeus, Salieri is a composer at the court of the Emperor of Austria whose gifts of devotion and hard work are superseded by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s carelessly curated genius, a creative gift from God that Mozart knows not how to pursue properly. Mozart is excessive: scatological, childlike, wanton. Salieri is the consummate courtier.

There are two brilliant moments of appreciation of Mozart’s music in Milos Forman’s film adaptation of Amadeus (which now exists in theatrical release and ‘Director’s Cut’ forms; much of the tonal difference between them is in the depiction of Salieri, who is much more sympathetic in the original release version). The first is near the beginning of the film, when a priest comes to Salieri’s cell in the Bedlam in which he has been incarcerated after attempting suicide, loudly accusing himself of Mozart’s murder. It is clear that, other than as a person of note, the priest has no idea who Salieri is, nor has any familiarity with his work, even though the priest studied music in Vienna in his youth. Salieri, with increasing discomfort to himself and audience(s), plays two short excerpts from his own work, asking whether the priest recognised the musical phrases. Each is received with a sorrowful expression, and then Salieri plays one last piece: the priest hums along, and declares: ‘that is charming! I did not know you wrote that.’ To which Salieri replies: ‘I didn’t. That was Mozart.’

The second scene occurs when Constanze, Mozart’s wife, approaches Salieri with a view to persuading him help Mozart to some preferment at court. In the play, this is part of Salieri’s plan of vengeance against the God (and his instrument) who seems to tarnish Salieri’s devotion and middling compositional gifts with the ‘ape’-genius; Salieri wishes to seduce Constanze in order to denigrate her and Mozart. She brings a sheaf of draft scores to Salieri; in the original film, this comes as quite a surprise to the Court Composer. The moment of revelation is beautifully played by F Murray Abraham*, and staged according to Shaffer’s guidelines in the play. As Salieri looks over each of the sheets, the music he sees is heard on the soundtrack, so that we may, even if at one remove, experience part of the musical rapture that overtakes him. Salieri says (to the audience):

She had said that these were his original scores. First and only drafts of music. Yet they looked like fair copies. They showed no corrections of any kind. [...] It was puzzling – then suddenly alarming. What was evident was that Mozart was simply transcribing music [...] completely finished in his head. And finished as most music is never finished. [...] Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall. [...] I was staring through the cage of those meticulous ink strokes at an Absolute Beauty!

The music ceases as Salieri, transported, drops the sheaf of papers to the floor. Amadeus is full of confusions of audience(s): implied, on-stage (like the priest), extra-textual (like us). The most fundamental confusion is in the mind and soul of Salieri himself. It is his curse that he wishes to be the instrument of a divine muse, the vessel of such an Absolute Beauty, but remains the only man in Vienna who can truly appreciate Mozart’s gifts. Salieri yearns to transmit the truth of divinely-inspired beauty in music, but finds that his gift is to receive those transmissions fully, a plenitude that he refuses.

For, what an understanding of his role as receiver entails is a sense of his own mediocrity. In characterizing his own position at court, Salieri declares ‘yes, we were servants. But we were learned servants! And we used our learning to celebrate men’s average lives! [...] We took unremarkable men [...] and sacramentalized their mediocrity’. Salieri’s curse is to understand mediocrity and to exemplify it: in his own lifetime, he is forgotten. But he is so close to achieving what he seeks: he is Court Composer and then Kapellmeister, he writes 40 operas, he becomes ‘the most famous composer in Europe’ for a time. How is this ‘mediocrity’? Because for Salieiri, mediocrity is about proximity: to genius, to the divine, to full achievement. So close as to be touched, but not grasped. To be felt, even for a moment, but not inhabited.

Salieri is the proto-typical post-Romantic subject. He knows what genius is; he recognises it when he sees its creations; but he is not possessed of genius himself. Salieri is, in effect, the subject as writer-critic, who worships and hates that which he is not: genius. From Byron to hackers, from Dostoevsky to Burroughs to cyberpunk, from Swinburne to Woolf to Chet Baker to Roy Baty, the genius-as-outsider, whose inspiration/obsession takes him or her beyond the world of ‘ordinary’ lives, into madness or addiction or criminality or transgression or suicide, haunts the artistic life of Europe and North America.  In fact, it haunts the imagination of everyone who dreams of doing something, of writing, of painting, of being a rock star, games designer, Michelin chef, athlete. Kurt Vonnegut, in Timequake, writes this:

‘of native talent itself I say in speeches: “If you go to a big city, and a university is a big city, you are bound to run into Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Stay Home, stay home.”’
To put it another way: No matter what a young person think he or she is really hot stuff at doing, he or she is sooner or later going to run into somebody in the same field who will cut him a new asshole, so to speak.

Of course, Vonnegut doesn’t mean ‘stay home’; he means that if you go out into the world, as you should, be prepared to experience the involuntary addition of an auxiliary anus to your person.

Inspired by images in a dream, some years ago I sketched out a story. (I never wrote it up in full.) In this story, which took place in a typical faux-medieval fantasy world, the narrator, Gaspard, is falsely accused of the murder of the King, and writes his testament, his confession, from the condemned cell. He tells of growing up in the Palace, the son of the old King’s first minister. Gaspard and the young Prince are of an age; they become playmates, and friends. They look alike (and would be thought twins, were not the thought expressed enough for the speaker to be skinned alive), but the narrator knows that there is an irreparable difference. When alarms sound, palace guards arrive to bear away the young Prince; Gaspard is left in the care of a nurse or handmaiden, to be ‘protected’ as best she can manage. The friends grow up together, and increasingly apart, the Prince to be trained in the ways of Kingship, Gaspard to replace his own father, in counsel, espionage, and administration.

Eventually, the Prince becomes King, and Gaspard becomes Minister. The King grows increasingly corrupt, as does the Court. Good men are banished, and thieves promoted. Powerful lords gather in opposition. One night, after sexual congress with a lady-in-waiting in a darkened corridor, Gaspard enters the throne room to find the King hanging by the neck. He panics, hides, sees the shadow of the dangling man upon the floor. He flees the room, and returns to his own chambers, only to suffer an attack of conscience. A naturally timid man, he returns to the throne room to find it empty. Some hours later, guards knock upon his door and inform him that the King has been murdered in his bed, his throat almost sawn through; Gaspard sees to the preparation of the body for burial.

Of course, there is a plot, and Gaspard the patsy, the fall-guy, is framed for the murder. He could tell what he saw, that the King had been hanged and the body decapitated to obscure the rope-burns, indicting the estranged Lords who have now seized power; but he knows that the King, his sometime-twin, was a bad ruler, and the Lords acted in what they presumed to be the best interests of the state, even if these coincided with self-interest. As regicide, Gaspard also finally throws off his role as servant, as the lesser ‘twin’, and with an assumption of guilt, takes the sins of the King and the state into himself, offering his countrymen a new beginning. Amongst this apocalypticism, though, at the end of the narrative, Gaspard signs off his confession with the phrase: ‘This is the last testament of Gaspard the Regicide (my will is not my own)’. Gaspard potentially undoes his own assumption.
I hadn’t read or seen Amadeus when I dreamed those images, but the patterning is distinct. Salieri and Gaspard are ‘nearly men’, successful people who live their lives close to genius or power, whose work is in many senses perfectly good and admirable, but who will always judge themselves by a yardstick they will never attain.
And so, a kind of confession.
The kind a person might make on reaching what used to be called the ‘middle age’, when you’ve reached a point in professional life, a foothold; more than that, when you’ve reached solid ground, something near to achievement. Somehow, though, that breakthrough, and that recognition, remains frustratingly out of reach. You can touch it, but not grasp it. In a professional world which increasingly encourages you to think of your own work in relation to others, measured by external yardsticks, in terms of competition and promotion rather than collegiality or co-operation (you co-operate to compete more effectively), which encourages a spirit inimical to generosity and kindness because the success of a friend or colleague cuts you a new asshole, I can say this: Salieri, c’est moi.
I’m not an obsessive, though. I’m competent at drawing, painting, playing guitar, writing,academic criticism , though I’m not great at any of those things (my greatest gift might be teaching, which, in contemporary culture, isn't much to boast about). And I’m not obsessive or driven enough to break myself in pursuit of them.
A manifesto, then, for the mediocre, for those who, like me, do their thing, but often wonder why:
  1. Keep on, with kindness;
  2. Failure is inevitable;
  3. You are not a genius, and do not need to be;
  4. 'Contemplating a purported work of art is a social activity. Either you have a rewarding time, or you don’t’ (Vonnegut again, Timequake);
  5. The same is true of making art;
  6. Be happy, but not self-satisfied, with what you create at the time you create it (rather than in retrospect);
  7. Experiment;
  8. Persevere;
  9. As Beckett says, fail better.
  10. Who wants to be a fucked-up genius anyway? 

* F Murray Abraham won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Salieri, which remains his best-known film role.


Saturday, 21 September 2013

Star Wars / Star Trek

If it came down to a choice between Star Wars and Star Trek, for me, it’s not much of a contest: for all that I grew up watching Star Trek (TOS) re-runs on terrestrial tv, watched the entirety of the runs of TNG, DS9 and Voyager (Enterprise didn’t do much for me) in the 80s and 90s, and have a deep and abiding fondess for Shatner, I only own a couple of the movies on dvd, and only Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one that I re-watch for pleasure. By comparison, I own all the Star Wars films, have the Clone Wars dvds, Star Wars Lego, and even went to see The Phantom Menace at the cinema twice (the second time on its recent 3D re-release). (That’s dedication.)

However, I recently sat down to watch Star Trek Into Darkness, and while the post 9/11 analogies are a bit pat, the question that is poses about the Federation itself – Scotty says to Kirk at one point, when questioning the arrival of advanced missiles aboard the Enterprise, ‘I thought we were meant to be explorers’ – is a particularly interesting one.  Because the film asks: what kind of organisation is this? What are its aims, its ethics? Central to this is the Prime Directive, the ‘non-interference’ clause that Kirk violates repeatedly (and once again at the beginning of Into Darkness) in the name of a ‘higher’ ethics, whether that is to save a friend (‘the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many’) or in the service of a kind of liberation-theology, removing a developing people from an oppressive yoke. The ‘Prime Directive’ proposes the Federation as a liberal, post-Imperial, non- or anti-hegemonic force, ‘seeking out new worlds, new civilizations’ to join the ‘family’ (a crucial word in Into Darkness, it should be emphasised), but refusing to expose themselves to the sight of developing species who might, as do the denizens of the world at the beginning of Into Darkness, turn the alien visitors into an extra-terrestrial cargo cult. This is an ethical alibi, of course, allowing Kirk and crew to zoom around the galaxy doing all manner of things – including waging war against Klingons or Romulans – without worrying unduly about the moral or material cost of happy adventuring.  Except in dilithium crystals, of course.

That the Prime Directive is central to the Star Trek universe indicates, I think, that for all the purchase Star Wars has on my own imagination, it is Star Trek that is the most interestingly and politically striated text. If the Federation is a projection of NASA, the ghosts that haunt the vaunted memory of Apollo – von Braun and the V-2s, the Shuttle’s secret military missions – also haunt the Federation. The Enterprise embarks on a ‘5 year mission’ to explore, but its capabilities are offensive as well as defensive, and as DS9 in particular explored, the Federation is also a military entity. Into Darkness brings this to the fore, although it really re-scripts the end-of-the-Cold War narrative of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, with Peter Weller’s war-monger General the counterpart of Christopher Plummer’s bellicose Klingon general, as well as explicitly re-writing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. One of the most revealing things about Star Trek VI is Kirk’s, and the crew’s, growing awareness that they themselves are Cold Warriors who have outlived their time, and in particular Kirk’s unreconstructed belligerence towards all things Klingon (‘you Klingon bastard, you killed my son!) has no place in the future coming-together of Klingon Empire and Federation that is key to TNG.

I think Star Trek’s ultimate psychological orientation is outward, not inward; what slash fiction has done since the 1970s is to create that psycho-sexual hinterland which allows Kirk’s question in Into Darkness – ‘why did I go back for you?’ – to go unanswered. (Spock’s stilted ‘because you are my friend’ seems somewhat lame in this scene; the film goes to intriguing lengths – Kirk discovered in bed with two be-tailed young women, the reverse shot of Carol Marcus in her underwear, not p-o-v because it is shot from below so her whole body is on display – to emphasise Kirk’s heterosexuality, when it is the homosocial – the relationship to Pike and to Spock, and even to Khan – that is the true centre of the film’s relationships.) By comparison, I think the basic orientation of Star Wars is inward; that is why the prequel trilogy’s handling of politics is so inept. Star Wars isn’t about politics; it’s about belief.

I read the crucial act in Star Wars as the moment when Luke, beginning his final run against the Death Star, turns off the targeting computer. Of course, he has heard dear old Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan say to him ‘Use the force, Luke’, but the act of turning off the computer is a turning away from material reality towards the numinous that lies within.

That’s why all the talk of midi-chlorians in The Phantom Menace is so cack-handed and unnecessary: the crucial split in Star Wars is always between the material and the spiritual, between Reason and Power (the Empire) and Faith (the Jedi/ the Force). What The Clone Wars series does a much better job of showing is that, like Kirk, the Jedi cease being ‘Knights’ but become soldiers, but don’t realise it. They become too immersed in the material world and lose their ethical compass thereby. (The prequel films handle this so badly that we, the audience, don’t realise it either.) Han Solo, who Leia sneers at when demanding his material reward, is so antithetical to the numinous that when delivering the line ‘May the Force Be With You’ to Luke, Harrison Ford clearly has no sense how to do it: is Solo trying to be sincere, to boost Luke’s moral, or is he taking the piss? Considering the rest of the film, you have to suspect the latter, but the moment cannot play like that, even though Hammill does a much better job of giving a withering silent stare in the reaction-shot, clearly believing that Solo is being sardonic. When Solo in the Millennium Falcon turns up at the Death Star, it’s in the cause of friendship, rather than because he believes: in the two sequels, he is a freedom fighter, not a Jedi-manqué. Solo is much closer to the two-fisted ethos of Kirk than anyone else in Star Wars, partly because he does not have the spiritual interiority demanded of the Jedi.

Where the crucial prohibition in Star Trek is the Prime Directive, the taboo that is the (somewhat occluded) problem in Star Wars, and in particular the prequels and the Clone Wars series, is the relationship between Master and Padawan. When Qui-Gon Jinn tells the young Anakin, about to face death in the pod-race, that he should ‘trust his feelings’ (a replay of Obi-Wan’s posthumous words to Luke in his X-Wing), my reaction is: hang on, aren’t the Jedi all about repressing one’s feelings? How can they, on one hand, profess that the Jedi must put aside attachments and treat all alike, while the source of their power, the Force, is accessed non-cognitively, through (yes) one’s feelings?

The prequel trilogy and partly the Clone Wars tries to posit Anakin’s later turn to the ‘dark side’ as a consequence of his inability to let go of his feelings, the negative emotions that accompany the loss of his mother and the love for (and secret marriage to) Padme. But this all feels unsufficiently motivated. Yes, he’s breaking the taboo of attachment, but it’s a perfectly reasonable romance (unreasonably/ execrably narrated in Attack of the Clones), and Anakin should be able to compartmentalise his life enough without being consumed by the Dark Side, to say to Obi-Wan (as he does in Revenge of the Sith) that the Jedi are ‘evil’. This doesn’t make much sense. Evil? How so?

I think the power of the ‘dark feelings’ that Anakin has access to are only really understandable in terms of the taboo on attachment that is articulated increasingly explicitly in the Clone Wars episodes. What this taboo is particularly meant to prohibit is, I think, sexual relations between Master and Padawan. (Where Star Trek is haunted by war, Star Wars is haunted by pederasty.) The relationship between Anakin, as Master, and Ahsoka Tano, as Padawan, is at the centre of many of the key episodes in The Clone Wars, and Ahsoka muses out loud about it, particularly to fellow Padawan Barriss Ofee (who later betrays her, having become disillusioned with the militaristic policies of the republic and the Jedi). In the great game of ‘what if?’, what if the mother of Anakin’s children were not Padme (which beside the difference in age – downplayed by the casting of Natalie Portman – is unproblematic) but Ahsoka, or someone like her (do a Google search of images for Ahsoka to see how many sexualised versions there are); not a Princess, but a Padawan?

The last time we watched Clone Wars, Isobel asked me ‘Why can’t the Jedis get married?’, a perfectly reasonable question; to which I would add the rider, ‘to each other’. There is, of course, a large amount of fan fiction which posits just this relationship, but unlike Star Trek Into Darkness (where I feel there are clear nods to Kirk/Spock), even the welcome revisions of The Clone Wars aren’t able to take Star Wars into that dark a direction.

It would be easier to understand Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side if he, like Barriss Ofee, had become a revolutionary, disgusted not only by the Jedi’s militaristic hypocrisy, but by the ‘evil’ of the taboo on attachment, a repression that leads to secrecy or abuse. Pulling down the Temple would seem a necessary act to one whose love for another could not be contained by the homosocial codes and rituals of the Jedi order, but becomes literally perverted, made sinful, taboo, by them.

Perhaps the sense is that, if Jedi husband and wife, or partners, were to fight alongside each other, the needs of the one might outweigh the needs of the many; rather than doing their duty and protecting the community (or social order), the Jedi might decide to put each other first. In Star Trek II and III, the relationship between individual and group, and the responsibilities of each to the other, is right at the heart of the narrative, and this is carried over to Into Darkness, with its post 9/11 inflections of Kirk’s ‘heroic’ and individualistic adventurism, that must be tempered by his assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the group. In Star Wars, this relationship is never made clear, because it is always articulated in terms of an individual moral choice between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ courses of action.  

In Star Wars’ terms, the Federation in Star Trek is an Empire that believes itself to be a Republic, peopled by soldiers who think of themselves as explorers. Star Wars separates out good and evil, right and wrong because its universe is fundamentally moral in conception; Star Trek’s Federation is open to re-scripting in Into Darkness because it, like the United States that it figures and ideologically reproduces, is an admixture of both.


Saturday, 24 August 2013

A Beautiful Con: The Tree of Life

The Tree Of Life is a very unusual film.  Not because of the dinosaur.  Well, partly because of the dinosaur.  But mainly because it uses the register of cosmological science fiction – in particular 2001 – to tell what is, it seems, by fairly conventional domestic story : the traumatic loss of a son and brother; father-son conflict; rites of passage in 1950s America; the failures of authoritarian patriarchal masculinity.  The film is presented in an extraordinary way, as a series of moments, often of striking beauty, in which dialogue is generally absent (crucial thematically), time is dislocated on a local, global and cosmological scale (seconds, minutes, years, decades, eons), but a sense of wonderment at (and the wonderment of) life is immanent.

This wonderment, even bewilderment, is carried not only in the extraordinary image-track, but also in the familiar Malick device of the disembodied voice over, in which baffled and self questioning voices express the interiority of key characters.  Or rather, the interiority of key male characters – boys and men – because the women in the film get short shrift.  I think this is for interesting reasons, though, as I will try to explain.

The narrative moves around in time.  It begins in what we must assume – by Brad Pitt’s glasses and hair cut – to be the mid- to late-1960s.  A young man brings a telegram to a house, and when the mother – Jessica Chastain – opens it, it brings news of the death of a favourite son, a trauma so profound that none of the surviving family members seem able to get over it. (I read his death as being, at symbolic age 19, in Vietnam.) The radical interiorization of this event, bracketing off social or political dimensions to make this strictly about the loss of a son or brother, made me uncomfortable – the response to the loss seemed an index of a more fundamental incapacity, of a howling lament rather than a shout of anger, a turning inward that marks both family and film, despite its cosmological register.  The film steadfastly refuses to connect the father’s overbearing patriarchal presence with a structure of feeling that allowed the drafting of their son to fight in Vietnam; if he is a sacrifice – and I certainly think he is – this is read theologically rather than politically. 

The film shows that it is the older brother, Jack – played by Sean Penn as an older survivor, still traumatised by his loss – who initially rebels against the father, and as an adolescent lad, he is the narrative focus for much of the film (the second half and in particular).  Younger brother R.L. – there are actually three brothers, for some reason, but the third is a spare wheel who gains no screen traction – does in fact present the most striking act of resistance, however: when Pitt tells wife and sons at the dinner table that they should only speak when they have something important to say, the boy wait a minute then interrupts the boorish Father (not ‘Dad’) by saying ‘Be quiet...sir’.  The father reacts violently, but in a sense he has not been disobeyed – what the boy said is in fact very important. Pitt blusters, but only towards the end of the film do his words carry real emotion and insight. The son, whose quietness is an index of his profound gentleness but also gives him a different kind of authority, speaks truth to power.

The younger son R.L. – beautifully played by Laramie Eppler – is the moral, or perhaps theological/spiritual  centre of the film.  When I watched The Tree Of Life with my wife, she plausibly suggested but the father presented kind of Old Testament authority, constituted by power and wrath, while the mother was the New Testament deity, full of love.  This works, but the mother is also a Madonna figure – at the end of the film, when she ‘gives up’ her son to God, she appears in a kind of pieta with female angels (or Graces) ministering to her.  This, of course, makes the younger son into Jesus; and indeed, the son appears to be the vessel of an unimpeachable and uncorruptible goodness. Twice, he says that he trusts his brother Jack, though the second time Jack lets him down badly, and R.L. is full of love, full of grace.  He is separate in his goodness, somehow – a crucial scene shows him on the porch, picking at his guitar, while Jack watches him in loving awe through the screen door.  The father, a talented organist, is too bound to the material world to approach the divine (though he yearns for sublimity) and confesses his failure to Jack at the end of the film, but R.L., who is not shown connecting with his father musically, seems to bear his gift as something different, other, divine.

The film begins with a voice-over by the mother, who declares that there are two paths in life: the way of Nature and the way of Grace.  (Jack takes the path of nature; the younger son R.L. the way of grace.)  This dichotomy striates the entire film.  After the trauma of R.L.’s death in the 60s, the film returns to the beginning – cosmologically.  We are shown the beginnings of the universe, of Earth, of life growing in the oceans, and then on land: the dinosaurs.  In a very curious scene, an enfeebled dinosaur lies on a river beach, while a raptor proceeds towards fallen prey.  But when it reaches this easy meal, the predator steps on it a couple of times, then moves off.  Is it simply not hungry?

There is clearly something else going on.  Although The Tree Of Life shows the development of life on Earth as a natural process, in events recognisable from conventional natural history, this is also signally a work of Creation. (The same mixture of natural selection and Biblical/ transcendent motifs can be found in 2001: A Space Odyssey.)  The title of the film is itself ambiguous, and could refer to either life as nature, the branching ‘tree’ of natural selection; or it could refer to the ‘tree’ of the ‘Great Chain Of Being’, a spiritually-invested understanding of nature which places human beings at the top (or end) of the ‘tree’ of nature.  In fact, what I think we have in The Tree Of Life is what seems to be a world of natural processes, but which actually privileges the theological, the immanence of the divine; for the dinosaur seems to show, if not compassion, then mercy: it decides not to eat the easy meal.  The raptor lies down with the lamb. The way of Nature is throughout underpinned by Grace.

This folds into the conception of gender in the film I noted above.  The mother herself is Madonna-like, a vessel of goodness.  Though one of the most happy scenes in the film is when Brad Pitt’s departs on a business trip, and she and her sons instantaneously transport themselves into a carefree, lively, joyful atmosphere of celebration and love, in the main the mother is sanctified, other, beatific, fay.  In one scene she floats in the air (by a symbolic tree); and she seems unchanged by the passage of time, unlike Pitt, who as an older man seems to be channelling Marlon Brando as Don Vito, playing monsters with his grandchild in the vegetable patch: and emblem of emasculated or superannuated (and thereby pathetic) patriarchy.  The fact that the mother does not change rather sentimentalises and reduces her, I feel, to a symbol of ‘the good’.  She is an angel. Brad Pitt’s Father is conflicted, complex; she is not.

Poor old Fiona Shaw, playing the children’s grandmother, attempts to comfort the mother upon the loss of her son by saying ‘life goes on’ – even while herself acknowledging that this is an empty platitude.  It’s another index of incapacity – but one that reveals the centrality of 'the way of grace' to the film’s symbolic structures.  Fiona Shaw’s banal rhetorical gesture is a straw man; she is entirely proven wrong.  Life clearly does not go on – the trauma is irreparable.  There is no coming to terms with the loss of the son/brother except in death, or rather, in the afterlife.  It is only when life does not go on, that grace, that redemption or salvation, enters.  This, of course, runs entirely counter to the huge cosmological narrative invoked in the first part of the film, which insists, visually, that life does go on, that death and life (and death) turn and turn about, are a part of the same natural cycle and process.  For Jack, and for the mother, the lost brother/son becomes a symbol of the ultimate reparation, the afterlife, and when all the characters meet up on the heavenly beach at the end of the film, this isn’t a jolly theatre like the ending of Fellini’s 8 ½, an acknowledgement that this is all but a play, but rather an attempt to shift into that transcendent mode of science fiction found in 2001, after Bowman has gone through the Stargate (or perhaps, as in Soderbergh’s Solaris, where Natasha McElhone tells Clooney ‘everything is forgiven’). We are somewhere else, where loves reigns o’er all.

That is why I have called this post ‘a beautiful con’, because that is what I feel The Tree Of Life is: it is, in many ways, brilliant, wondrous, sublime; but it rests upon a sentimental religiosity that runs entirely counter to the sophisticated pleasures of both its visual track and its ambitious time-frames.  It is a con because I don’t think it is true; life can, indeed must go on; traumas can be overcome; wounds heal.  Inevitably, The Tree Of Life is a post-9/11 film (and like The Thin Red Line a war film of sorts, though this is a guerre sans nom) where the traumatic rupture leads to a kind of millenarianism, when catastrophic loss may only be made meaningful (and thereby redeemed) with the onset of the Day Of Judgement.  If America sacrifices it sons in overseas wars, the longing for death to salve these losses is deeply troubling, not just ‘problematic’, in its evacuation of hope, in its erasure of the future, and in the avoidance of the political question of why they were sent to their deaths in the first place.

Friday, 9 August 2013

The gift and Twitter (science) fiction

In Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test, the author uncovers the case of a strange book called Being or Nothingness by Joe K being sent out to unwitting academics, mainly those in fields pertaining to AI. The first chapter of the book narrates Jonson's attempts to get to the bottom of this literary prank, partly through the work of Douglas Hofstadter (author of Godel, Escher, Bach and I Am A Strange Loop) whom Jonson at first suspects, but then discovers had been sent some 70 copies in English and 10 in Swedish of this very book. I won't give away the solution to his odd riddle, though it's pretty prosaic (and is really Jonson's book's Macguffin), but it fascinated me; not only that someone would go to the expense of producing a high-quality item but that they would send them out as gifts to unknown parties. I've thought of buying one - there's a couple on Amazon - but this would be a bit beside the point. I'd love to receive one through the post, though!

The idea of the gift - something which compromises our commodity fetishism, which is outside the economic system of exchange value constitutive of capitalism - has been a recurrent idea in critical theory over the past 40 or 50 years, from Bataille's economy of expenditure and the potlatch, to Derrida, to Baudrillard's symbolic exchange. Even if Being or Nothingness is just a provocation, a literary prank or puzzle, or even a strange marketing stunt, its status as gift renders it mysterious, enigmatic. The question is not only where does this come from, but who would do such a thing? The motivations are obscure, because in British culture gifts are usually motivated: birthdays, Christmas, thank yous, celebrations and so on. To be given something without motivation arouses suspicion. Is it a con? What do you want in exchange? 

In this light, although there is a lot of debate about the problems of 'free culture', and particularly of dissemination of artworks via the internet (that is to say, no-one wants to pay for cultural production, meaning that artists cannot subsist from their work), I find the idea of giving work away to be a very attractive one. (As an academic who mainly doesn't get paid for the writing he does, except occasionally the odd royalty from a book which might help fund the things I need to buy to research the next one, I'm used to producing work that seems to have little or no monetary value.) It is one of the reasons why I occasionally write this blog. I very much like the development of Creative Commons and buy into the aesthetic of the remix in a big way. I also find fascinating writers who use new media to disseminate their work.

I have experimented with this kind of thing myself, writing a Twitter fiction (in 140 parts) last year, and got part way through doing another one before abandoning it, and might be involved with a colleague in a collaborative project using new media (or even teaching it) in the future. Although Twitter sometimes appals me and seems to bring out the worst in a culture of instaneneity and shoot-from-the-hip anonymity, I also find some experiments with the medium highly interesting. The poet George Szirtes (@george_szirtes) is a great follow, for instance; Aksania Xenogrette (@gadgetgreen) too. Jeff Noon also used Twitter to publish his 'spores', 140-charcater fictions, but I have recently read on his feed that he is to publish Pixel Dust containing 1700 stories which I can only presume are these (and others) collected in book form. Now, this made me think. The transmission between Twitter feed and book form is an interesting one, and I can see why the texts might be collected up in such a form: book publication legitimates the writing, lends it a coherence and materiality it obviously lacks on Twitter. But that, of course, is the point of Twitter: it is a 'feed', in time, and if not ephemeral, then not subject to the archival dynamics of the codex book in the same way. If the texts were designed for Twitter, why publish them in a book at all? 

Here we return to the idea of the gift. Twitter fiction is surely a gift from writer to follower/reader, although its provenance is known; retweets allow stories, gifts, of unknown provenance to enter the feed, to be transmitted to you: and in the rest of the blog I would like to consider the work of two writers who have primarily used Twitter - but also book publication - to disseminate their work. One is a writer of fiction, of science fiction; the other a poet. I knew of neither before I started to use Twitter; both came to my attention as gifts, by happy accidents of transmission.

The first is Kneel Downe (@kneeldowne), whose Virulent Blurb world(s) (@VirulentBlurb) began on Twitter, but I subsequently bought Fractures when it was self-published on Lulu (I will return to Lulu later). On first reading the Virulent Blurb feed I was minded of a line from Iain Sinclair's introduction to the poetry collection Conductors of Chaos, largely formed of poets he curated while an editor at Picador for a short time. Sinclair wrote: 'The work I value is that which seems most remote, alienated, fractured. I don't claim to "understand" it but I do like having it around' (xvii). This perfectly expressed my initial response to Kneel Downe's feed: I didn't quite know what the hell was going on in it, but I was intrigued because I didn't know. A bit like Being or Nothingness, it was a gift without provenance, enigmatic, unusual, difficult to decode.

As sf, it had some clear generic pointers. It was post-apocalyptic, and the references to a lack of the Sun seemed post-Matrix; it was very definitely influenced by cyberpunk, and as the work went on, references to Noonian domes suggested an inflection through Jeff Noon's Mancunian cyberpunk Vurt and Pollen (as did later references to Alice); characters came and went, introduced then disappearing into the textural weave, but 'AJ' made me think of Burroughs, Sally of Gibson again;  behind it all seemed to be an interest in myth, in the apocalypse as myth (Wotan/ Woden?, the death of the Gods in the Ragnarok saga?), of histories becoming stories becoming myths and legends and then a kind of code, a code for time and a knowledge lost. But none of this was spelled out, only suggested in the compressed 140-character tweets: '50 years forgotten: the last missile fell. Megatonic and slime. Horizons halved. Weapon unknown - the enemy stole our sun and left us dust'. Or: 'Tomorrow's skull. Bone soothsayer. Spewing and maybes at clustered feet and floating free-forms. All that was and could. Fractals'. And next: 'I am Solar. Child of the fire. The Sun meme. Messiah incarnate. Threads converge. Deeds cry unfilled. ARM yourselves. Who stands against me?'

The density of the tweets intrigued me, a world boiled down to hard and sharp points, shards of language. Some parts worked better than others, some images were more striking than others, but the unevenness was part of the feed, like you were tuning into to a fugitive transmission on a broken radio. This was thematised in the story itself: some tweets supposed some kind of frame: 'INFO STREAM INVALID...DISC CORROSION...STAY PLUGGED FOR PHAZE 3...dream cream is available...apply to infected area...'. The whole narrative was coded as some kind of immersive transmission in itself, a SimStim or VR narrative, something out of Brainstorm. And it worked.

When I bought the book, which has a rather nicely designed cover with a butterfly superimposed upon the moon (or encased in it, somehow), I found the first 12 'phases' of the material, which still worked fine, but not quite as well as a feed; one reads it down the page, conventionally, rather than up, which is still estranging, creates a different response (like, for someone of my generation, the chatter of a teleprinter across the screen), somehow urgent and demanding attention. The tweets became a book, or rather, part of one; and on the page, the layout reminded me of David Markson's brilliant late quartet of novels which use fractured sentences, paragraphs, compression and repetition, quotation and confession. That's a very high bar. On the page, Virulent Blurb: Fractures becomes a form of experimental literature, experimental sf, and partly lost what made it so striking as a transmission. The tweets were also followed by other material, clearly part of a wider world-building strategy, and although these were designed in a variety of forms - screenplay, journal, prose - the material seemed more conventional somehow, less subject to the pressures of Twitter compression that made the original material so interesting. Kneel Downe is still developing several strands, and it's interesting to see where it goes. I'm a bit less engaged with the superhero stuff though.

As I wrote above, poetry can also be effective on Twitter, and one of Kneel Downe's confreres, James Knight (@badbadpoet), a member of the echovirus12 (@echovirus12) collective, has developed a very interesting set of texts on several themes, partly disseminated through Twitter. Knight's poetry is fractured and fantastical. He also has developed his Oneiroscope interactive bad dreams, which is a very interesting concept (respondents send ideas to him) well executed. I've bought three of James Knight's e-books: The Death of the Bird King, Thresholds and Head Traumas, the latter two both anthologies, and which both include material from 'The Madness of the Bird King'. The Bird King is an emblematic figure for Knight (which has a clear debt to Ted Hughes' Crow but developed in and interesting and individual way), a kind of uncanny assemblage of Jarry's Ubu, Gothic monster and Heath Robinson contraption:

The Bird King's heart:

a clunking clockwork contraption


wheels within wheels
           
                        jarring

            g r i n d i n g

triggering his body functions and rage. (The Madness of the Bird King, 8)

The Bird King is a fertile figure for Knight: monstrous, tragic, but funny and earthy. A kind of materiality is crucial to Knight's poetics, I would say, and his work is at its best when it concentrates on that materiality: uncanny objects, lists, a build-up of effect through concentrated description. Knight's '13' series are often very successful in this way: from '13 machines from the Bird King's private collection': 'Christ-in-the-box leaps heavenwards, eyes agog'; or from '13 disturbing objects, recovered from a hypnosis-induced nightmare': 'a fifty Pound note, on the back of which is a handwritten message, in thick black ink: NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING', or 'A cardboard box full of smashed lightbulbs'. There's almost a Joseph Cornell sensibility at work here, each poem a cabinet of curiosities, but adding up to something disturbing and intriguing.

As my references to Jarry might suggest, there’s a strong connection to Dada/Surrealism in Knight’s work; not only in his interest in dreams and dreamscapes, but on strange conjunctions, illuminating discontinuities, the poem itself as a collage or rickety machine. One can imagine the Bird King onstage at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, knocking over Hugo Ball in his cardboard wizard suit.

I feel that Knight's best work is when he does not strain for meaning or significance, as he sometimes does, as in '13 transformations': 'rose petals quiver in the breath of summer, glow like embers, become butterfly wings'. There's too much going on: it's visual but overstated, reaching for effect; rather than objects colliding, it’s metaphors, becoming overheated. But these stand out because usually the poetic voice is restrained, objective, even when describing the weird or uncanny. The work is smart, too, effectively using intertexts in poems like 'Josef K Through the Looking Glass' or 'Medusa Variations'. In the 'Snowmen' sequence, he can also be very funny; in his Mr Punch and Jack Ketch poems, an interesting variant on the Ubu/ Bird King type is pursued. Head Traumas is well worth checking out.

Both Kneel Downe and James Knight are self-published, through Lulu. Knight's books are often illustrated, and even the e-books have visual material in them; they have a very keen eye for design. Although Kenneth Goldsmith has written interestingly about the use of Lulu, neither of the writers here go down that route, but use self-publishing as a means of disseminating their work outside of the mainstream or even indie presses. This has advantages, in that it gives both a measure of control over their work that might be otherwise absent.

Both deserve a wider audience; at best, both writers use fractures and compression to great effect. As such, Twitter is an ideal medium. I still feel, though, that the relation between Twitter publication and book publication has still to be worked out.


Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Modernist Morecambe

 ‘Can you see the Real Me?’ (‘The Real Me’)

Driving up to the Placing Morecambe symposium held at Lancaster University a few weeks ago, I listened to The Who’s Quadrophenia album. This was a happy accident. A few days before, trawling through the hard-drive on our Freeview receiver, I noticed that the excellent BBC4 documentary on the making of Quadrophenia was still there, and sat down to watch. Later, the psyche gave me a nudge and I put my Who box-set and Quadrophenia in the car. Only half-way up the motorway did I realise the appropriateness: in the story told by the concept album, Jimmy, the young Mod, suffering from a personality disorder that Townshend dubs ‘quadrophenia’ (Pete wanted to make the album in quadraphonic sound, but it turned out strictly stereo, four faces condensed to two) has a kind of breakdown, and travels from his South London home to Brighton, where he has an epiphany at the sea-side. The album ends ambiguously: the listener doesn’t know whether Jimmy ends his life in the sea (one of the songs is called ‘Drowned’) or whether he simply throws off the burdens of being a Mod:

‘Why should I care
If I should cut my hair
I’ve got to move with the fashion
Or be outcast’ (‘Cut My Hair’)
I’ve always understood this ending hopefully: the drowned scooter on the lp’s back cover (a Vespa GS150) signifies to me a rites of passage: that he turns back from the terminal beach and returns to London a different person.
That it is Brighton beach upon which Jimmy has his epiphany – with its stony strand on which the opening track, ‘I Am The Sea’, falls with a roar and billowing hiss – is of course a historical nudge to the listener who understands or recognises the place of the Mod in post-war British popular culture. Brighton’s is the symbolic beach upon which Mods engaged in a series of semi-theatrical fights with Rockers, defining a schism between two opposing 60s youth subcultures. Rockers, who rode motorcycles (mainly British BSA and Triumph bikes) and wore leathers, were identified with 50s rock’n’roll; Mods, who rode Vespa or Lambretta scooters and wore suits, sharp styles and American army parkas, were oriented towards Italian fashions and listened to soul, Motown, bluebeat, and r’n’b. Dick Hebdige, well-known author of Subculture: the Meaning of Style, in his essay ‘The Meaning of Mod’ argues that Mod subculture was localised – mainly in London and the South-East of England – and represented a kind of resistance as consumption. Where the Rocker, Hebdige argues, inhabited a ‘traditional’ and working-class subjectivity, the Mod (who he associates with office work rather than manual labour) is aspirational, potentially socially mobile, and oriented towards a new, Modern future: hence the name, Modernist.
Since the Mod revival of the early 1980s (when I myself was a teenage Mod: definitely a ‘Ticket’ in the hierarchy of the group, where the ‘Faces’ at the top ‘led’ the ‘Numbers’, ‘Tickets’ and ‘7 and 6ers’ (named after the price of the roundel-printed t-shirt they bought from Woolworths)), Mod has been less oriented towards the future, and more towards the past. It has also been oriented away from the South-East, where the battles between Mods and Rockers began in Clacton (up the coast from where I grew up in Essex) on the Easter Bank Holiday in 1964, then flared up in Brighton and along the South Coast on the following Whitsun weekend. The continuity of Mod revivalism with the remains of the Northern Soul circuit (centred on the North-West of England), and the importance of the phenomenon of ‘scooterist’ rallies to the contemporary Mod scene has lent it a more nostalgic structure of feeling, somewhat at odds with the emphases and aspirations of the original Mods. (And also different in age: my 40-something brother-in-law is now a scooterist, having been a ‘casual’ in the 1980s.)The 60s Modernists have their antecedents in the hip, consumption- and display-oriented young metropolitans documented in Colin MacInnes’s novels, most notably Absolute Beginners, the geographical epicentre of which was Soho, a part of London with a distinct and Italian-influenced everyday/night life (in delicatessens, restaurants, coffee bars). This youth culture, and its extension into the Mods, pointed away from the Britain of austerity, rationing and work, towards hedonism, consumption and leisure. The Mods were oriented towards a future Britain of spectacle, the ‘white heat’ of technology, and one of productivity and full employment, of the road out of the metropolis towards the periphery. Except in the case of the post-war British condition of London’s centrifugal energies (dispersal of working-class populations in new towns and LCC estates) and centripetal dynamics (post-consensus acceleration of London’s economic predominance), that future did not come to pass.
‘The beach is the place where a man can feel/ It’s the only place in the world that’s real’ (‘Bell Boy’)
In Quadrophenia,  Jimmy meets the ‘Ace Face’ (‘I don’t suppose you would remember me/ but I used to follow you back in ‘63’), who works as a Bell Boy in a Brighton hotel.

‘I got a new job
And I’m newly born
You should see me
Dressed up in my uniform [...]

Bell Boy
Gotta keep runnin’ now
Bell Boy
Keep my lip buttoned down
Bell Boy
Carry the bloody baggage out
Bell Boy
Always running at someone’s heel
You know how I feel...’ (‘Bell Boy’)

‘Bell Boy’ emphasises the deadening work , the alienating and humiliating work that lies behind (and provides for) the Mod image of leisure, display and autonomy. As Hebdige notes, Mod’s orientation towards consumption as a form of resistance makes it all-too-easy to recuperate as a ‘lifestyle’, to fold the Mod back into sanctioned cultures of productivity and sanctioned leisure time. The beach, however, is different, a liminal space (as discussed at the symposium) where Jimmy’s own implication in the world of work (notably, on the lp photographs, he is shown carrying bins: he is a dustman, not an aspirational clerk or executive-to-be) is dissolved, transcended. Not only is this form of Modernism a suit of clothes, but so is the subjectivity of post-war British masculinity that he finds difficult to negotiate. While the Ace Face accepts his humiliation as part of the economy of Mod-ism, Jimmy rejects it.

For a reading of Modernist Morecambe (itself the recent site of scooterist rallies, although the 2013 one was apparently cancelled), that Ace Face is a ‘bell boy’, that he works in a hotel is crucial (the hotel as locus of other people’s leisure time, whereupon the circuits of labour and service that structures this ‘holiday’ time become apparent). The Midland Hotel, the Art Deco landmark that adorns the Morecambe seafront (and which has been a crucial touchstone for the Placing Morecambe discussions), is an emblem of the spectacular (and aspirational) representation of the British seaside masking the labour that enables it to function. The Midland, now the centre-piece of the Urban Splash-conducted restoration which is a clear pump-primer for ‘regeneration’, is at once separate from the vernacular architectures of the Morecambe front and is echoed by other Art Deco buildings in the town, as was noted in the symposium. Art Deco housing, with its maritime emphases on white surfaces, glass, porthole windows, polished metals, is found in towns next the sea – in Essex, notably at Frinton-on-Sea, just 7 miles north of Clacton – co-exists with the ‘seaside’ but is notably different from it. The Modernism of the Midland Hotel, its geometrical regularity standing out against the wash of the sea on the beach, dissolving horizon, blue or grey-brown of the Bay, is at once a spectacular resistance to the peculiarities of location (see Bexhill’s De La Warr pavilion, or Margate’s Turner Contemporary) and an organisation of point-of view: of the rail passengers whose first view of Morecame when disembarking from the train would be the hotel, and the perspectives across the bay (away from the town) offered by the hotel’s tearoom and accommodation.


Suggesting that the Midland Hotel is like ‘a beached liner’ is not so far of the mark. The Midland is Art Deco, but in particular it is ‘Streamline Moderne’, part of the vogue for the aerodynamic that characterises a particular moment in 20th-century design, one embodied in the work of Norman Bel Geddes. The ‘Streamline Moderne’ is at the centre of William Gibson’s well known short story, ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, in which the narrator meets a British enthusiast for American ‘raygun Gothic’, the streamlined architecture and objects that go unnoticed in American everyday life, from gas stations to pencil sharpeners. Having immersed himself in this future-that-never-was, the narrator drives through the Arizona desert and experiences a kind of hallucination:

I looked behind me and saw the city. The books on Thirties design were in the trunk; one of them contained sketches of an idealized city that drew on Metropolis and  Things to Come, but squared everything, soaring  up through an architect's perfect clouds to zeppelin docks and mad neon spires.

That city was a scale model of the one that rose behind me. Spire stood on spire in gleaming ziggurat steps that climbed to a central golden temple tower ringed with the crazy radiator flanges of the Mongo gas stations. You could hide the Empire State Building in the smallest of those towers. Roads of crystal soared between the spires, crossed and recrossed by smooth silver shapes like beads of running mercury. The air was thick with ships:  giant wing-liners, little darting silver things (sometimes one of the quicksilver shapes from the sky bridges rose gracefully into the air and flew up to join the dance), mile-long blimps, hovering dragonfly things that were gyrocopters...

I turned the headlights on. [...] And saw them. They were blond. They were standing beside their car, an aluminum avocado with a central shark-fin rudder jutting up from its spine and smooth  black tires like a child's toy. He had his arm around her waist and was gesturing toward the city. They were both in white: loose clothing, bare legs, spotless white sun shoes. Neither of them seemed aware of the beams of my headlights. He was saying something wise and strong, and she was nodding, and suddenly I was frightened, frightened in an entirely different way. Sanity had ceased to be an issue; I knew, somehow, that the city behind me was Tucson, a dream Tucson thrown up out of the collective yearning of an era. [...]

It had all the sinister fruitiness of Hitler Youth propaganda.

The Midland Hotel, a hallucination on the Morecambe seafront, real and not-real, a remnant of the ‘collective yearning of an era’, need not be folded back into a critique of architectural utopianism-as-totalitarianism as suggested by Gibson (and also, it should be noted, by Jonathan Meades in his recent documentary on Essex, whose invective against much of the county’s planned architecture was explicitly anti-utopian, and had a vernacular or even volkische architecture as its preferred counterpart). That ‘collective yearning’ can also be found in the streamlined aesthetic of the Vespa scooter that Jimmy crashes into the sea,
another beached craft, listing on the tide. The lines of the scooter promise speed, mobility, Modernity, the future: a future that Jimmy can only embrace, ironically enough, by sloughing off Mod costume, by abandoning the past/future (a future-past) and embracing the ‘human near-dystopia we live in’ (Gibson, p.11).

The Midland Hotel, ultimately, is that most Modern of things,  a time machine, propelling its users into the leisure-time of the past, the comforts of Art Deco luxury and style as a tempo-rary abandonment of present-day Morecambe itself, turning one’s back on the town, looking out to sea, like Jimmy, while sipping a nice cup of tea.

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