Category Archives: Criticism

haunted by (hopeful) futures

The great pleasure of following Adam Roberts’s blogging—once you’ve gotten past the minor frustration of finding that he’s upped sticks and moved to another domain and/or platform for whatever he’s currently driven to write about—is watching him try out ideas, throw together a hypothesis, then start poking it to see if it holds up.

Latest case in point: do the ghost stories of Dickens mark a shift in the way in which fiction thinks about futurity? It’s quite a chewy idea, and you should read the whole thing if you’re curious, but this is perhaps the crucial part of the argument:

By the end of the [19th] century, most notably with the variegated futuristic fictions of H G Wells, the notion that the future would be in substantive ways different to the present had bedded itself into the emergent genre, such that it is — now — a core aspect of science fiction’s many futures. Nowadays ‘futuristic fiction’ simply comes with the sense, baked-in, that the future will be different to the present, not just in the old utopian writing sense that a notional 1776, or 1789, will usher in a new form of social justice and harmony (according to whichever utopian crotchet or social-reform king-charles-head happens to be yours), but that change will happen across multiple fronts, have intricate and widespread ramifications. That the future will be a different country, they will do things differently there.

[snip]

What I’m trying here is to see, by laying it out, whether there is a argument of some significance that can be established. Does it begin with Dickens? So, to strike the keynote again: in Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1765) Scott’s ‘Wandering Willie’s Tale’ (1824) or Pushkin’s Queen of Spades (1834) the present is haunted by the past, as is the case in most ghost stories. But in Christmas Carol and ‘The Signal-Man’ the present is haunted by the future.

I am not anywhere near sufficiently well-versed in C19th fictions to have an opinion worth hearing on this theory, but it’s interesting nonetheless—particularly as Roberts ties his proposed pivot (in part) to the concretised-modernity of the railways in “The Signal-Man”, and as y’all know well by this point, infrastructure as a cultural and political force is totally my jam.

I will also include this earlier part of the argument, for reasons of resonance which will become clear:

Through the early nineteenth-century plenty of books were set in ‘the future’, many of them utopian works in the Mercerian mode like Vladimir Odoyevsky’s The Year 4338 (1835) and Mary Griffith’s Three Hundred Years Hence (1836). But alongside this ‘new’ version of futuristic fiction was a vogue for a second kind of futuristic fiction, secularised (to some extent) versions of the old religious-apocalyptic future-imagining. […]

We might style these two modes of imagining the future as spinning ‘positive’ (utopian) and ‘negative’ (apocalyptic) valences out of their futurism, but let’s not. That would be clumsily over-simplistic of us. I’m more interested in the way the two modes feed into one another.

Again, no prizes for intuiting my interest in this part of the piece, and it will be interesting to see how (if?) Roberts collides the axes of utopia/apocalypse with haunting-pasts/haunting-futures. But it also chimes nicely with a little bit by Warren Ellis (who I’m very glad to see blogging once again):

A dystopia is a speculative situation where the absolute minority of people habitually experience hope and joy. Embedded in every piece of dystopian fiction is utopian thinking – the speculative condition where the absolute majority of people habitually experience hope and joy.

Commercial dramatic fiction requires tension between two poles. It requires stakes, change, a goal to advance towards. Conflict. Dystopian fiction is almost never actually about the dystopia itself (although writing dystopia is good, crunchy stuff with lots of detail to relish in the authorship). Dystopian fiction is almost always about the utopian reach that’s suppressed by the situation.

Nothing theoretically novel in that, perhaps, but it’s a very succinct way of stating one of the major threads of post-Moylan critical utopianism. As someone caught awkwardly between the positions of critic and author—and, some would say, not really covering all the bases on either pole; Roberts is a hard act to follow on that front, and not only because he’s so terrifyingly prolific—it’s satisfying for me to find statements from someone firmly in one camp (in this case, Ellis as author) that map clearly to statements from the other.

Because, contrary to the cliches, this theorist is pretty keen on seeing how theory plays out in practice…

the influence of anxiety

Fredric Jameson, clearing his throat before a long piece (from 2007) on the half-centennial of Garcia Garquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude:

Influence is not a kind of copying, it is permission unexpectedly received to do things in new ways, to broach new content, to tell stories by way of forms you never knew you were allowed to use.

(Stumbled into from his more recent review of the new Olga Tokarczuk, which is being received with varying intensities of rapture in all sorts of places, though which all such rapturous receptions seem to suggest is quite a challenging work.)

a recurring theme in literary and cinematic history

This piece by Megan Marz at Real Life references a lot of (contemporary, literary?) fiction that I’m completely unfamiliar with, but in the context of a phenomenon I am more familiar with, and very interested in, as both a writer and a human being: the slipperiness and perpetual redefinition of the word story. The whole thing is well worth a read, even if you too are woefully under-read in the burgeoning field of autofiction* , as I am. This wonderful sentence is basically a summation of the whole thing, though, and is the bit I’d pullquote and tweet if I was still doing the birdsite:

“Story” is the story that writers tell about what they’re moving toward or away from.

Lovely.

[ * Most of this stuff, I’ll be honest, sounds dull as ditchwater to me in the summaries I encounter, despite my own keen interest in the demolition, subversion or abandonment of plot in written fiction. I also feel uncomfortable about feeling that way, because the demography of the genre suggests it may be a form of internalised misogyny on my part. Maybe I should write an autofictional piece about Some Guy who feels uncomfortable about not wanting to read autofiction because it sounds incredibly tedious? Strictly ironic, of course… but then irony’s as dead as narrative, they tell me. It’s lucky no one much really cares what I think, innit? ]

a sense of an enclosed present, a total present, severed from history

I was yesterday years old when I learned (courtesy David Higgins’ Reverse Colonization, which I may write about directly if time allows) that David Harvey—yes, that’s Lovable Marxist Granddad David Harvey™—can count among his many achievements having been a minor contributor to Mike Moorcock’s run at New Worlds, where he published a piece of fiction and an editorial on (among other topics) entropy.

Higgins’s discussion of Harvey’s NW stuff reminded me of one of Harvey’s better-known academic contributions, namely the notion of “time-space compression” as a function of capitalism, which is implicated in the emergence of the postmodern condition. I’ve been meaning to look that up for a while now, not least because I’ve assumed it’s related to a few underdeveloped squibs that leapt out at me during my (rather tormented and difficult) first attempt at scaling the mountain of Uncle Karl’s Grundrisse; these asides concern what Marx referred to as “the means of communication”, but which we would probably now refer to as (yes, you guessed it) infrastructure.

In lieu of actually getting hold of and reading Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry in the Origins of Cultural Change (because hahahah, OMG, I have waaaaaay too many things to do and read for me to consider adding another one to the queue at this point), I dug out this retrospective piece by Natalie Melas at the Post45 collective, which sets the book alongside the (much better known) Fredric Jameson works on the postmodern. These excerpts, however, are more concerned with Harvey’s distinct notion of time-space compression, because it’s of greater and more immediate relevance to my work. Clip the first:

The signal contribution of Harvey’s argument is the analysis of “time-space compression” in which capitalism, as he puts it, “annihilates space through time.” The way global space shrinks in our experience and understanding relative to the time it takes to traverse it is one basic index of the time-space compression, but the term also points to “processes that so revolutionize the objective qualities of space and time that we are forced to alter, sometimes in quite radical ways, how we represent the world to ourselves.”5 Harvey specifies several “rounds” of time-space compression in the history of capitalism. These time-space compressions are prompted by alterations in “the objective qualities of space and time,” but their ramifications are an alteration not only in our experience but also in our representation of the world. Representation is the key vector in Harvey’s analysis that allows for the intersection of visual art, film, architecture, urban planning and other modalities of postmodern culture.

No points to VCTB regulars for guessing that I’m about to make the point that the medium of time-space compression is infrastructure; this is a media-ecological argument, in that it extends the notion of “media” from the lay understanding (i.e. newspapers, radio, TV, internet) into the material distributive systems through/across which those representational media are (re)produced. The equivalence goes the other way, as well, in that we can think about, say, water treatment and distribution systems as a sort of system of representation and communication… and that also means that the use of the term “abstraction” in the civil engineering discourse around infrastructure suddenly has a very interesting (i.e. alarming) doubled meaning.

Again, I need to read the actual book to be sure, but I strongly suspect that there’s support in Harvey’s thinking for my own argument that the metasystem (a.k.a. concrete infrastructure, pun very much intended) is always already the metamedium, which is to say it is the screen upon which the Debordian Spectacle is projected. Clip the second:

For Harvey, as for Jameson, the postmodern time-space compression gave on to a sense of an enclosed present, a total present, severed from history at least in its dialectical form. Our own moment, under the pressure of ecological crisis, seems instead preoccupied by a futurity bound to the consciousness of a geological time scale, a scale that utterly dwarfs historical epochality.13 The extinction of homo sapiens, along with other animal and plant life, is persistently knowable but unrepresentable, no less so than the aesthetic problematic of globality in postmodernism that Jameson describes and names the “postmodern sublime” at the end of the eponymous essay in Postmodernism, or The Logic of Late Capitalism. Is there a distinct rupture between contemporary discourses on environmental catastrophe and the thematics of postmodernism, or is there a hidden continuity, or both?

Meanwhile, the questions of (un)representability that Melas is poking at here seem to me to be the same questions that Latour has been wrestling with in the last few decades, albeit from a very different direction… and that loops me back to the Higgins book, in a way, because it quite rightly defends postmodern critique against the accusation that it is somehow to blame for the soi disant “post-truth” phenomenon, but nonetheless (perhaps unavoidably?) sustains the Foucauldean reification of ideas like “power” and “neoliberalism”, which Latour would argue are black boxes which must be opened and explored as the perpetually renegotiated networks of relations that they are. Indeed, Higgins’s final chapter, on a lesser-known Chip Delany trilogy, kind of makes the same point… but it does so with(in) the paradigm of postmodern critique, and so carries through what Latour (and, increasingly, I) would describe as the (well-intended) limitations thereof.

So, yeah—some useful connections here. We’ll see how time allows for me to write more about the Higgins, because it’s an interesting book in its own right, as well as a demonstration of the limits of certain critical apparatuses.

cultural fracking / “indie sleaze”

Nothing is more eyerollingly contemptible than someone else’s nostalgia, for the very obvious reason that—d’uh—there were better things to be nostalgic about when I was young.

The above, for the avoidance of doubt, is meant to be read as deeply ironic, but there’s also an element of truth to it. This has become very apparent over the last week or so, with the tidal surge of the ‘indie sleaze’ concept gurgling up through the cultural sewer system.

I’m going to assume you already know what I’m talking about, here, because I’m a writer and theorist with a blog and not a news site; if you’re not aware of the ‘indie sleaze’ memeplex, then the article at tQ I’m about to cite heavily will probably explain it sufficiently for you to get what I’m on about. But I hazard that if you’re not yet aware of it, you’ll likely not care much for having been made aware of it, at least in the specifics; you might find the abstract points I make below to be of interest, but then again, you might not. Caveat emptor, innit.)

(ETA: have just noticed that the URL for that tQ piece includes the phrase “Mandela effect“, but the article doesn’t mention it by name at all; I wonder what, if anything, got left on the cutting-room floor?)

So, yes—Daniel Dylan Wray comes in early in his piece with an observation that’s older than either of us:

Nostalgia and the 20-year cycle are common in music. It’s no big surprise that a bunch of people pushing 40 start getting a bit warm and mushy remembering when they were 23 and full of pills and Red Stripe while listening to Soulwax. It’s human nature. It’s nice to remember good times with old friends.

(It’s a mark of my being that little bit older still than Wray that the mention of Soulwax makes me feel less warm-and-mushy and more decline-and-fall… because I recall Soulwax as a vaguely interesting band who threw it all away by spearheading that immensely tedious yet undeniably popular mash-ups phenomenon. And so it goes.)

But anyway, to put it in a capsule, ‘indie sleaze’ is a label suddenly being used to gather and package curated images and vibes (but, crucially, very little actual music) associated with the Noughties indie boom. According to Wray,

… there appears to be little else going on other than some people wallowing in the past while trying to convince themselves that it, or maybe even them, possesses some sort of contemporary relevance. As though if one keeps saying that something is happening enough times then it will eventually become true. It feels like the signs of a creeping millennial midlife crisis. Some of the stuff being posted under the indie sleaze hashtag already indicates a seemingly inevitable generational shift into ‘it was better back in my day’ territory. The next generation of Weller haircut mods or acid house dads are now seemingly upon us.

Well, quite. “Same as it ever was,” to quote a band from the generation before mine, that said generation quoted at me relentlessly; this is not a new thing. Wray consults an academic specialist in nostalgia to get some insight, or at least some side-sight, on this thing.

“There’s two ways of looking at it,” Routledge tells me. “The cynical way is that these are totally distorted memories. The more positive side is that as humans it’s really important to have a story arc, a narrative. It is kind of like filmmaking and the reality of the past is like the raw footage. Well, that doesn’t make for a good movie. What makes a good movie is when you go in there and you find the pieces that you think tell the story you want to tell. So I don’t think it’s total fiction, that footage is there right? But where it becomes more creative, and more imaginative, is how we make editing decisions.”

My bold, there, to highlight what is probably a fairly obvious point, in order that I can deliberately overstate it in a way I’ve done before: all narrative is curation. Yes, literally all narrative, making no distinction by media, or even between fiction and non-fiction: telling a story is about reducing the huge volume of stuff and events in the world (imagined or real) to a coherent and curated selection that thereby imposes meaning on a a volume too vast for our meaning-making capacity to handle.

It is thus very much in that spirit that I will note that Bill Gibson concretised Routledge’s metaphor in the maguffin of the very pertinently-titled Pattern Recognition… which, just to compound the synchronicity, is a cultural phenomenon roughly contemporaneous with the raw material from which the ‘indie sleaze’ aesthetic is being lashed together. Which brings us neatly to:

The whole thing just feels like such a weird, tenuous, desperate grasp for something that isn’t there. A bit of a front. One that people are using to mask the reality that the music they like, or make, has been deeply out of fashion for some time and are jumping on an opportunity to convince themselves its back.

What’s really odd about it is just how immediately people have swallowed it up and digested it without question. “It’s fascinating,” says Routledge of it all. “I wonder if it becomes like a self fulfilling prophecy? Like the buzz just makes it come back? Like a viral marketing campaign.”

The claim of the upper paragraph there is, I think, a bit of generational sour grapes on Wray’s part—and I say that without meaning to judge him harshly for it, because my identifying it as such is totally a function of remembering a number of times when I’ve felt exactly the same about some cultural thing-of-the-moment. Nonetheless, I think that assumptions of bad faith of this type are best not left unquestioned… and Routledge’s response starts getting to the meat of what I think this is really about. He continues:

Why has it taken such hold? (At the time of writing fresh articles are still appearing daily from major titles.) And why now? “I’ve looked at this in the context of music, film and fashion,” says Routledge. “And it’s around this age, late 30s and early 40s, that this generation gets the reins of power over culture. What I mean by that is: who’s calling the shots at the film studio, who is the editor of the magazine? That’s when these people are in charge. Obviously they’re not in charge of the bottom up organic cultural movement but they’re in charge of the discussion of it. So I think that’s part of the cycle – who gets to decide what gets the green light.”

Routledge is half-right here, I would argue, in that yes, the age cohort he’s describing is dominating the discourse on the topic, but not because they’re “in charge” of anything. Rather, it’s because the algorithmic systems have surfaced a connection between that cohort’s perfectly natural nostalgia, the “raw footage” of the era in question, and—crucially—an audience which might be formed into a viable (if momentary) market. A market for what, though—new music? Fashion? Hot-take articles? All of these, and none of them; a market for attention, first and foremost. This is an emergent phenomenon in which no one—not even those who have programmed the algorithms that underpin (what remains of) the web and social media—is truly in control of. Those algos identify and amplify tiny seismic quivers of attention, just like an amplifier amplifies the tiny signal from a guitar pick-up… and that guitar pick-up then catches a bit of the amplified signal and sends it back round again, and then, well, you all know where this metaphor goes (particularly if you’ve ever had the misfortune to hear me play guitar).

The question of the temporality—the twenty-year cycle—is interesting, but that predates the internet by a long distance, so I think we can ascribe that to the nostalgia circuit that Routledge is talking about, something that existed in earlier, less gain-y iterations of the cultural amplification system. (Sorry, but I’m doubling down on the guitar feedback metaphor, partly because it’s apropos to the particularities of the story, but mostly because it’s the illustration of runaway positive feedback that’s most easily identifiable to the largest number of people without having to get into Systems Theory 101.) What’s unusual here, if anything is unusual, is the rapidity of the response (so, the gain of the amplifier) and the shallowness of the source material (so, the low level of the signal, which correlates to the sensitivity of the pick-up).

Wray gets this, or almost gets it, I think, but then pivots away from the deeper implications:

Obviously this whole thing is ridiculous and seems to be little more than an exercise in SEO. Which is fine as fashion and trends are supposed to be ridiculous from time-to-time, and the era of so-called indie sleaze certainly was. Whatever happens in the fashion world with indie sleaze (and I’m sure it will continue to be a thing while the right people are claiming it is a thing) remains separate to the discussion in question here because you can’t consciously replicate a youth culture movement, even if you want to. They are, in essence, born from the very pure and potent power of naivety.

Yes, it is exactly an exercise in SEO, but the point is that there’s no real causal chain, no one who can really be said to have started the exercise—not even the person who started the ‘indie sleaze’ aesthetic curation process. There are dozens, maybe even hundreds of such aesthetics being curated all over the place right at this very moment; it’s only when the attentional pick-up passes over one particular string, vibrating away in the seething quantum void of culture, that the sound gets heard, and the sympathetic resonances start up.

Now, sure, the movement of the pick-up—or rather pick-ups, because there are many agents doing this sort of work, some for money, some for pleasure, some for a mix of both—is directed to some extent. And also, sure, the question of whether the resulting note is sweet enough (or fuzzy enough, or whatever) to appeal to enough attentional agents that the pick-up is held in place for long enough for the note to ring out, that’s a function of cohort nostalgia, as Routledge notes above… but I think it may also be a function of the neophilia of another, younger cohort. Because while there’s some money to be made out of selling people’s youth back to them all over again, there’s not enough to really sustain that note over time; for that sustain, you need to use the nostalgia circuit as the pre-amp, and then shove that boosted signal through the power-amp that can drive the speaker cabinet. And the power-amp is, and always has been (since the 1950s, at a guess, though possibly before) the hunger among young people for some alternative to what’s already on offer in the culture surrounding them. That’s what the Noughties indie boom was at the time; it’s what the various things-called-indie around the end of the 80s and the start of the 90s were (which is to say, the sounds of the 60s rehashed for a generation who had only heard the banal and bowdlerised stuff successfully recuperated by capital in the intervening years).

It is, in short, what friend-of-the-show Jay Springett calls cultural fracking… and much like its namesake, it is driven by a deep imperative of extraction in a system which, for all its uncritical worship of the notion of “innovation”, struggles to actually do anything new at all. All it can do is amplify a signal it stumbles upon. But because the gain of the resulting amplification has become so high, and the sensitivity of the pick-ups so refined, and the number of people trying to make a buck by waving the pick-up around in hope of finding the Next Big Thing has become so vast, there’s hardly any space for a new and genuinely novel signal to develop. So it’s new bottles for old wine, over and over again.

(This, incidentally, is one part of my enduring beef with the notion of “innovation niches” in transition studies; the observation that novelty emerges from niches is almost tautological in its obviousness, but the assumption that novelty might therefore be “fostered” by seeking out niches and “managing” them is business ontology at its very finest, and also serves to ensure that no niche is left alone long enough for any substantive novelty to develop.)

Ugh… I felt sure when I started this post I had a more substantive point to make, but it seems my argument is basically “OMG u guiz this is capitalism plus infrastructure!!!1”. Which is at least consistent, I guess? So regular readers (those who haven’t long since clicked away elsewhere) may like to think of this as a case-study, which will perhaps be referred to (and made better use of) at some later juncture.

(Alternatively, you may prefer to put it down to procrastinatory displacement activity while working from home on a day of astonishingly foul weather. These two interpretations are not mutually exclusive.)