Books

Fragmentary, No. 14

In the past we have always assumed that the external world around us has represented reality, however confusing or uncertain, and that the inner world of our minds, its dreams, hopes, ambitions, represented the realm of fantasy and the imagination. These roles, it seems to me, have been reversed. The most prudent and effective method of dealing with the world around us is to assume that it is a complete fiction – conversely, the one small node of reality left to us is inside our own heads. Freud’s classic distinction between the latent and manifest content of the dream, between the apparent and the real, now needs to be applied to the external world of so-called reality.

♦ J. G. Ballard, 1995 Introduction to Crash

urban-sprawl

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Fragmentary, No. 11

My wing is ready for flight,
I would like to turn back.
If I stayed everliving time,
I’d still have little luck.

—Gerhard Scholem, “Greetings from the Angelus”

There is a picture by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.

♦ Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”

Coll IMJ, photo (c) IMJ

Coll IMJ, photo (c) IMJ

Fragmentary, No. 9

The rule that secret files must contain only information already known is essential for the operation of a secret service, and not just in this century. Likewise, if you go to a bookshop specializing in esoteric publications, you will see that every new book (on the Holy Grail, the mystery of Rennes-le-Château, the Knights Templar, or the Rosicrucians) repeats exactly what was written in earlier books. This is not simply because occult writers are averse to carrying out new research (nor because they don’t know where to go looking for information about the nonexistent), but because followers of the occult believe in only what they already know, and in those things that confirm what they have already learned.

♦ Umberto Eco, “Thoughts on WikiLeaks”

The Summer of “1984”

It was a surprisingly bright, English day; and swarming with crowds through London’s theatre district. My companion, whom I had come all the way across the pond to see, was providing the commentary, as my voice was out of commission. Just before all the fixed points of my life were upheaved and mobilized at the beginning of the summer, I lost my voice. Everything I wanted to express, direct, or exchange was throttled by a forced rasp that was all my ailing vocal cords could accomplish.

“It’s viral. Your body’s fighting it. That’s good,” said my doctor after I had submitted to her examination.

“I need to move cities and then leave the country within the next week,” I narrowly managed to convey to her.

She shrugged. Shrugged!

So, from my perspective, the visit to Britain was a little less convivial than I would have hoped; but ultimately the trip was already paid for and I wasn’t about to cancel. Sulking moodily in a newly acquired apartment, solitarily mired in an unfamiliar community, rather than exploring the banks of the Thames, wasn’t really how I wanted to spend the first half of July. So be it, I thought.

I packed up. I went.

It came to a frustrating result, but still, a rewarding one. It was a worthwhile visit: hanging out with physics nerds in the East End; frequently venturing out to buy bargain white wine from Tesco’s; navigating the Tube without being fairly able to ask for directions; wandering. England’s weather didn’t reject me—it was identifiably summer. There were lots of opportunities to rove about in the open air, and circumnavigate the kinks of London’s urban knot. It will be recorded as a cherished trip.

That day, though, frequently crushed by the mobile agendas of bamboozled tourists, we skittered past the theatre production of 1984.

“Everyone makes such a big deal out of that book,” my chaperone said to me. He went on to ask what I thought about it—does it predict a future we are on a collision course with? Or has it already happened?

“I actually haven’t read it,” I wheezed in a forced strain beneath the background noise.

He, the student of science, was shocked that I, the student of literature, did not have first-hand knowledge of the book. Although, when pressed, he admitted that he had only ever made it through the first 40 pages, and was basing most of his opinion regarding the interface of Orwell’s dystopia with our evident reality on hearsay. The conversation we managed to have about the novel’s lauded prescience in a way succeeded in spite of our mutual handicap. The upshot was the observation that, despite vocal remonstrations from the modern public concerning the erosion of confidentiality and the growing ubiquity of surveillance, recording, and monitoring technologies, it seems that we have in fact quite prosaically handed over the rights to our privacy in steady increments. Could we not say that we have already acquiesced to Big Brother? Has the revolution not happened around us? Isn’t Orwell’s future here?

Now that I’ve read the book, I see that there were some quite conspicuous lacunas in our unsubstantiated assumptions about the nature and character of Big Brother. As one of those frequently required schoolhouse texts, 1984 has a kind of imaginative currency that transcends the actual act of reading it. Having never cracked its spine I still felt familiar with the broad strokes of the text just by virtue of cultural osmosis; but that knowledge was a sketchy equivocation and did not adequately map out the content of the novel’s concerns. As a result our rhetorical questions about an already realized Orwellian present-future were fairly off base.

The omnipresent telescreens and the consequent obliteration of privacy; the techniques of doublethink and the reworking of language to delineate the boundaries of what is thinkable; the machinations of the Ministry of Love and its subversive agents; all these together produce a framework of technologies devoted to the subjugation and control of the very people who are at work maintaining that same control in 1984. The totalitarian regime of the Party in Oceania is indeed devoted to power: having it, exercising it, perpetuating its hold of it; and it does this largely through the management of information. The ultimate goal is to govern thought itself to render resistance impossible and secure the future of the Party indefinitely. The techniques are forceful, brutish, and conspicuous; but, more importantly, they only concern the 15 percent of the population who are members of the ruling class. The proles, the remaining 85 percent, remain relatively untouched by the social engineering, surveillance, and coercion techniques of the Party. The masses are simply kept poor, kept busy, and herded.

Orwell’s 1984 has not come to pass. The brutality and ham-fisted manipulation tactics of the Big Brother regime are quite self-evidently totalitarian, conceived and enforced by a relative few under the guise of a war-mongering communism. The conditions we live in are far more insidious, far-reaching, and all encompassing. The mechanisms of control that pervade our modern society bring to fruition the primacy of information that exists in Orwell’s vision, but they diverge sharply when it comes to concerns of centrality and complicity. We live in a network of coercions that lacks a definable centre: the nodes of power that continuously form and dissolve, while remaining continually mobile or nebulously defined, influence us from all sides. The agendas of human interests work to win us over through the functions of every design, every product of human endeavour. As we want, as we desire to interface, as we exchange and as we capitalize upon our options, we collaborate. Not only that, we proliferate the very forces which enact the processes of restriction and control that delimit us. The scale of our complicity in the management of human life does not confine itself to the ruling class—in this information age every participant in the circuit of feedback and interchange makes a tacit acquiesce to regulation, and in turn does their part in contributing to the policing of the comprehensive complex that overwrites the boundaries of our interconnectedness.

George Orwell didn’t predict this. We’re in a much more subtle mess than he could have envisioned.

 

Notational, No. 10

The dull light fell more faintly upon the page whereon another equation began to unfold itself slowly and to spread abroad its widening tail. It was his own soul going forth to experience, unfolding itself sin by sin, spreading abroad the balefire of its burning stars and folding back upon itself, fading slowly, quenching its own lights and fires. They were quenched: and the cold darkness filled chaos.

♦ James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I deeply regret losing the fire of mathematics. I am not so far away from it now that the time when calculation came naturally doesn’t foreclose a clear, bright memory; the joy of accomplishing acts of pure reason did certainly burn like stars on the page, as well as in the brain. Still more I miss how it used to be possible for numbers to act as ciphers for more emotive and illusive signifiers. I used to derive equations that spoke to me of conflict, of the complex relationships between adults and children, of the yearning that emanated from the undisclosed x, the loneliness of the y; and, of course, of secret shames that harboured deep in the recesses of an analytical but also very superstitious mind.

My relationship to faith has been fairly cordial, though progressively more distant, since about the time that math and I began to part ways, but Joyce is not just capturing a guilty psyche riddled with paranoia here—there is something in this passage about the affective registers that lurk in all of human cognition. In the spaces between the most ostensibly unsentimental activity, passion exists. To be brought to interpret tenor and tone, even in the most monochromatic, matt surface of proofs, this shows something that elevates human accomplishment and has the capacity to suggest that a greater pattern governs the whole of mortal endeavour. A lesser intelligence begets the possibility of more powerful observation. Where and how is it localized? As we solve our affairs what is left in the margin? Does the remainder rest, and how is it evaluated?

The answers remain cold and disordered, alienated from heaven.

Notational, No. 9

[A] book about the attrition of a fantasy, a collectively invested form of life, the good life. As that fantasy has become more fantastic, with less and less relation to how people can live—its attrition manifests itself in an emerging set of aesthetic conventions that make a claim to affective realism derived from embodied, affective rhythms of survival.

♦ Laren Berlant, Cruel Optimism

There is reason to take issue with the historical present. That we have gradually, inexorably, been becoming detached from the genuine prospect of realistic achievement of a collectively entertained (and entertaining) fantasy life seems almost cruel in itself to acknowledge. The negative injunction—”don’t look!”—could rightly and more reliably be expected to emanate from an internal source rather than an external one. We do not desire to examine the very tenuous foundations on which we are so hastily and compellingly erected from. The project of living today in the Western world almost requires a blindness complicit with the unachievable nature of our ambitions; ambitions which are manufactured against the impetus of an ostensibly easily accessed sense of reason, along with features of social and political realities that we willfully attenuate to the point of polite dinner conversation. Actual, meaningful, cognitive assessment of the terms, conditions, cost, reliability, and plausibility of the models we project outward and upward from ourselves, on which we base life changing decisions and evaluate one another in society, can feasibly be apprehended to be inherently repulsive. Too much of our sense of coherence and intelligibility relies upon a hope that may in fact be toxic to any real form of stability. The point that Berlant hammers so deftly is one of precarity: as supporting and driving institutions continue to shrink from the business of real service to a larger community, and instead mobilize people as statistics which serve the bottom line of not even the 1% but rather composite, covetous corporate and national entities, the prospect of success becomes hazardous. It may never arrive. It likely won’t, not recognizably. The “good life” is so utterly contingent in a world with so few genuine supports that its mirage may be better understood as a form of abuse; but where does it emanate from? The sources at this point are inscribed on inner spaces as deeply as on outer. The “situation tragedy” which Berlant invokes lurks at the periphery of most modern lives, as a pessimism that acts almost as a force unconsciously moves in to inhabit the regions of projected futurity, spaces that were once mediated by a sustained and nourishing sense of hope. Perhaps we should ignore the injunction despite the allure of ignorance, and look to reevaluate our dreams.

Notational, No. 8

“Meanwhile, I follow my principles of education and give of my best in my prime. The word ‘education’ comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in a pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I can education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem truro, I thrust.”

♦ Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

This is a pretty aphorism that Miss Brodie pronounces to her coterie of impressionable, and somewhat dazzled, young girls. The irony, of course, is that she is setting out to have them “for life,” that she strictly and narrowly inculcates with her doctrine of opening out, of liberating—and this prompts a frisson of realization: there is a paradox lurking in the prospect of teaching someone how to be free. “Leading out” of the boundaries of oneself can be a strict, methodical undertaking. Circumscriptions accrete around the soul from the very moment of birth, we emerge into them, and part of the process of maturity is the determining of where and how one might breach the superstructures of law and the word. What must go in for there to be a breaking out? And how might one lead with assurance, without inscribing fresh proscriptions onto formative psyches that are responding to promises of licence and self-fulfillment?

Yet who does not want to be led towards a more expansive expression of one’s own self? If only we might simply open doors from the exterior and allow the interior to flourish into the open air. It would be a grand practice of proud pedagogy, even if it is a process fraught with narcissism.

Shore Leave

There is a charm to Gaiman’s writing that waxes and wanes as you move about his body of work through the years. His Ocean At the End of the Lane is particularly rapt by instances of imagination that seem to have occurred to him before, and that he has shared with his public, but they have seldom played out so well, or so well crafted. It is a book that neatly walks the seam between what strikes one as young adult and what might be termed a more mature fiction, but it is really a story about revisiting your childhood from a distant—yet not unmanageable—vantage point. He neatly weaves together motifs that lurk in the psyche of our current age in amongst each other—pop culture references, the trappings of modern life in the seventies, mythology, juvenile pulp-ficiton, popular science—and the result is a little bit of spellbinding. His conceptualizations of eternity, and his spin on the underlying nature of reality, are formulations that crop up from the pens of other fantasists working in the English language, but they are no weaker for the similarities. There is something comforting in this coalescing mythology that attempts to unify the mysteries that lurk beyond understanding in the world of an increasingly atheist and agnostic educated class, where there are a mass of facts but very little interpretive meaning. It is nice to know that there is room for dreams in the spaces between instances of our scientific and technological growth. It is nice to read something that finds permutations of comfort and solace in amongst the frightening scale of the universe.

Bellow’s Howl

More Die of Heartbreak is an extended meditation on the longings which suffuse the core of modern existence, at the heart of the “posthistorical” world. For the most part it takes place in an undisclosed, Midwest American city that rises vertically out of a declining Rustbelt. Kenneth and Ben are the foci of the narrative, what is primarily Ben’s story pulled together from meticulous notes Kenneth keeps of conversations and excursions he participates in with his Uncle. We are painstakingly introduced to the content and foibles of these two intellectual men, our narrator a scholar of Russian literature surrounding the Revolution; his uncle, a world famous botanist who has a “magical” rapport with his objects of study. These men are both romantically challenged, and love each other more than they are seemingly capable of loving others, or perhaps even desirous of accomplishing. Their homosocial bond in more intimate than any of the heterosexual ones that they develop throughout the book. Which is part of its charm. The argument, if there is one, is that longing, and heartbreak, are at the centre of more misery than other, more sensational natural and man-initiated phenomena, and that love between two heterosexual men cannot assuage the misery or the damage that can grow out of it despite one’s best efforts to nurture or even avoid it.

Kenneth is incapable of switching off his academic analysis for more than a couple of moments. Everything that transpires elicits a host of tangential, associative pondering, directed at either his unspecified reader, or his reader and his uncle, who participates in the endless unwinding of the permutations of living a life that yearns for a higher plane, but is unequivocally mired in the dirt with those who live a “throw-away existence,” including, most especially, Ben’s new wife, who is a fully realized avatar of the commerce-driven, consumer identified, day-by-measured-day concatenation of mundane events—even if they are held to a certain aesthetic and monetary standard. Kenneth is chasing a dream, a vision of education—the kind of education that comes from being close to a luminary who has cracked some element of the world’s code. The usual suspects that he lumps into this category are identifiable, but where the poet Blake and his realer-than-real compatriots are sealed away from him by space and time, his Uncle Ben is accessible to him, and holds him in high regard. They are attempting to gain enough perspective to render a coherent image of what it is that they encounter in this world. They are critical and dismayed, angered and impoverished in their encounters. They are two souls gifted with reflection but little ability to muddy themselves in the trenches of life. As they do get dirty, they make a mess of everything they come in contact with except their relationship to each other.

There is something in all this that speaks to the heart and the soul’s yearning for communion with something higher and more refined than what we toil with in the quotidian world. I spent much of the book sympathizing with Kenneth and his Uncle. Their journey is the journey of the rarified intellect contending with contemporaries and peers who do not share the patience, the insight, or the inadvertent innocence that marks their experience of the world. They both secretly yearn to be paragons of the human project in a sense that only those who can leave something to antiquity can be, and this may ultimately be incommensurable with a more regular modern life. Although who’s to say that these kinds of powerful ambitions were ever commensurable with any age of life; but the speed at which the sedate are dodged and made to accommodate the contemporary, the up-to-the-minuet transmissions of information, beggars contemplation. That which stands to contend with it on the plane of human consciousness, and looms over us in invisible transmissions like a vast, geodesic dome, is anchored by the twin horns of an Electronic Tower and stands at the centre of the modern concern.

Fight the Current

I’ve developed a nasty habit, and it has become obvious that, in its modest way, it is supporting the disintegration of a culture I adore. To be fair, it’s insidiously easy to access, and the convenience of indulging the compulsion is almost obscene: I can do it at home, at school, on the streetcar. The initial satisfaction it provides is almost instantaneous, but the long-term personal payoff is a humble, yet steady, stream of pleasure. I admit, it might be a problem. There must be a way to curb the urge. Somehow, I have to cut down. I must try and give Amazon the slip.

Perhaps there’s a program.

This epiphany came after reading George Packer’s rather epic survey of the monolith’s history of operations, “Cheap Words,” that just appeared in this week’s issue of The New Yorker. It summarizes the rather horrifying operational strategies of the company and the calculated exploitation of a market that is already besieged by the vicissitudes of the information age. “Amazon is not happening to bookselling,” the founder Bezos is quoted as saying. “The future is happening to bookselling.” Which, in its way, is probably true, but in the hands of someone who sees professionally published writing simply as a specialized niche product, rather than an institutionalized and rather unique medium of exchange, there is bound to be some damage done to the culture which surrounds it. In this case it’s a little ironic. The big, intimidating publishing firms, which have held the keys to the kingdom all these years, are finding themselves being muscled around by an entity even more interested in the bottom line than they have proven themselves to be, and if they suffer a little I doubt many writers or readers will shed many tears, but it’s the independents that suffer; and, without a doubt, the writers.

The rise of Amazon’s power to influence and determine the decisions of the houses that publish, based solely on consumer buying patterns and cost efficiency, represents the democratization of content selection. This, on its face, may not appear to be such a horrendous thing. A marketplace dominated by the most generally appealing products is, most would agree, efficient; but it does nothing to address issues of discernment and the prospect of innovation. I do not agree that the expert has nothing to offer to the process of selecting and curating the products that are exposed to the world. I’m rather invested in the premise that the authority of the specialist is worth paying attention to. Much that has become culturally relevant to antiquity through the ages has not been contemporaneously popular. The frame of appreciation has to be adjusted by innovators and connoisseurs. Complacency needs to be challenged if there is to be any room for the new, as well as reverence for the old, and I don’t want an uneducated committee to determine what art is available for me to interface with.

I came of age as Amazon was coalescing within the invisible circuitry of the Internet. Its presence in the world has developed as I have, and as we have both matured my attitudes towards the company have been fairly ambivalent, up until now. The mega bookstores were already annihilating the independents when I started my working life; the more fragile components of the trade were already suffering by the time I ordered my first book online. I felt like I was shafting Chapters, not the publishers of small press and academic work. This past year my Kindle has felt like a reasonable acquiesce to the realities of the modern age, and one that could save me significant shelf space. It still does, if I’m honest; but I need to stop clicking so thoughtlessly through the pages of a digital marketplace that has no reverence for the literature it trades in, or for the true value of the objects that it barely profits on, objects it just uses simply as a means to an end. There’s an evil ring to “total commercial domination.” It may be an exercise in futility, but a small act of resistance—ordering my volumes from an actual bookseller while the option still exists—is a reasonable enough commitment to an industry that I not only support, but steadfastly believe in its necessity.

As outright rebellion I have deleted my Goodreads account. For, although I feel comfortable judiciously sharing components of myself through Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress, I feel like I must draw the line at handing over my consumer profile to an entity that simply wants to exploit my data to, in turn, exploit those I would rather support. Though perhaps, in another way, that decision may ultimately prove more harmful, by refusing to let my reading choices stand and be counted amongst the crowd of bestsellers and reams of pop-psychology. Ah, the double bind.

Who wants to fight the future?

Oh, I do.