Category Archives: Reading Journal

Walking my riddels where ever theyve took me

I dont think it makes no diffrents where you start the telling of a thing. You never know where it begun realy. No moren you know where you begun your oan self. You myt know the place and day and time of day when you ben beartht. You myt even know the place and day and time when you ben got. That dont mean nothing tho. You stil dont know where you begun.

p9

From Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. I was sure I’d read it before, and maybe I did, but it seems both familiar and thrillingly fresh.

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.

it may be a delusion arising from some sort of psychological damage

My most recent review filed at (but, I think, not yet published at?) the BSFA Review is of The Art of Space Travel, a collection of Nina Allan’s short fiction. It was a somewhat out-of-the-comfort-zone commission, which is exactly why I chose it; in addition to reading outside my home range, I’m also trying to write about that reading, because writing about reading tends to make me pay more attention to the reading. (Though this can sometimes make reading into something that feels close to being work, which is less than ideal… but then, if you write, reading is part of your work, isn’t it?)

Anyway, point being: while Allan is definitely a speculative writer, there’s a real singularity to her work, both stylistically and thematically, and that presents a challenge for reviewing. You want to describe what the work is doing—its affect, if you like—but you’re left stranded far away from your usual touchstones of comparison, grasping for a way to describe something which, while not exactly unprecedented, is not easily summed up.

This is, to be clear, the very best sort of challenge to have, and I find it fully endorses my choice to start reading more widely: I’m being stretched, as reader and writer alike. But it leaves the part of me that is a reviewer/critic with a sense of imposter syndrome it hasn’t had for many years: am I reading this right? Will anyone recognise the affect I’m trying to describe as the same one they encountered in the same work?

As such, it’s reassuring to read this bit from Paul Kincaid on Allan’s latest novel—a different book, to be sure, but the ontological duality (and associated epistemological doubt) that he describes here leaves me feeling that at least someone is seeing a similar mechanic underlying the production in question:

Nina Allan’s work occupies two worlds. One is our quotidian reality. This is privileged: it is where the novel opens and closes, it is unquestioned. This is the world we see around us, the one we take for granted as real. But at some point another world opens. We may spend some time there, but it remains little more than a glimpse, allowing us not quite enough to judge its nature. This world is questioned within the text, we are told to doubt it, but generally in a way that leaves us insecure in our doubt. This may be a realm as real as our own, it may be the fictional creation of one of the characters, or it may be a delusion arising from some sort of psychological damage. We do not know, we cannot be sure. But it profoundly affects the behaviour of at least one of the characters, so it is real to them.

In a way this is the trick that Christopher Priest pulled off in The Affirmation, but Allan does not collapse the two worlds into one at the end. This necessarily leaves everything ambivalent.

Two coextensive worlds, check; one world quotidian and unquestioned, one world strange and glimpsed only momentarily or fragmentarily, check; clear offer of off-ramps of doubt allowing—nay, sometimes even directing—the reader to dismiss the strange world as somehow imagined or false, check; ambivalence of enduring non-resolution of said worlds, check.

Yup, I feel a bit more confident about my own review, now. In the meantime, have you read any Nina Allan? You probably should; she’s bloody good.

keep your shit straight

Currently reading, and finding assorted resonances within, Maria Dahvana Headley’s radical re-translation of Beowulf. I’ve seen (admittedly few) accusations that its linguistic choices, exemplified by the use—first line, first word, and throughout the piece thereafter—of “bro” as a parsing of the tricky-to-translate “hwæt”, are somehow gimmicky. It certainly marks it at a translation of its time, but I think that’s maybe not a bad thing, given any translation of such an old text is by necessity a thing of its time: might as well lampshade it, and see where it takes you.

“A ruler who’s been known as a good man since
days of old, a generous, just gift-giver, a war-wielding
homeland healer, is equipped to say the following:
this man’s as good a man as me. Beowulf, my boy!
You’ve proven yourself in every context. Your name
will be known around the world. You’re steady, strong,
and sure in all respects. I open my arms to you, as agreed,
and fulfill the bonds of friendship. For your people,
you’ll be, like me, a defender and a hero.
But… hold up, hear me out, indulge me a moment.
Heremod, that old king, was no hopeful hero to the heirs
of Ecgwela, the Honor-Scyldings. His rise was their fall.
He raged, cut down close comrades, aged advisers,
and when he died, he died galled and alone, friendless,
though famous. God had given him grace—granted him
wealth, health, and power. His road had no rocks on it.
He’d known only joy. Somehow though, his heart
was not a hawk but a drone. He bombed his own bases,
denied his Danes damages, kept entrenched in combat.
He commanded his kingdom’s collapse, and was, when ancient,
loathed when he could’ve been loved, his life lesioned
with losses. Listen to me, boy. Keep your shit straight.
I’ve been fostered by frost-seasons, fathered by time,
and I’m dropping knowledge now…”

lines 1700-23

And it makes it fun, easy to read. I vaguely recall starting and bouncing off the Heaney translation in the early Noughties, when I was trying to broaden my poetic base. That’s no discredit to Heaney, who had (I assume) a very different project in mind to Headley: the latter’s linguistic choices, much as they will date far faster than Heaney’s, nonetheless do the work of making what might otherwise seem like a worthy but dusty historical curiosity and making it timeless and relevant simultaneously. The words become transparent, letting the story and (crucially) the characters shine through—and that roster of characters very much includes the narrator, who is a creature of the milieu he is describing (and yes, he, because this is very much a male milieu, which is another thing the language choices make clear) even as he also carries the hindsight of the poet, of the tale-teller, which was (as I understand it) the closest thing in that era to being an arbiter of that which we now think of as history.

All that worthy bollocks aside, though, it’s just a breezy and entertaining read. Recommended.

repeating falsehoods like incantations

From Timefulness by Marcia Bjornerud:

An irony of our technological advancement is that it has created a society that is in many ways scientifically more naive than the preindustrial world, in which no citizen who learned physics through backbreaking work and understood climate through subsistence agriculture would have assumed that he or she was exempt from the laws of nature. The “modern” kind of magical thinking is characterized by the belief that repeating falsehoods like incantations can transform them into scientific truth. It is also yoked to a quasi-mystical faith in the free market, which, according to the prophets, will somehow allow us to live beyond our means indefinitely.

p164

A very accessible and relevant introduction to geology in the context of the Anthropocene. Also calmly but firmly refutes pretty much every geoengineering “solution” in circulation, and offers short shrift to the methadone of (B)CCS.