Category Archives: Writing

the efficient universe

Synchronicity, serendipity, universal ordering… call it what you want, but sometimes you’re working on something, and out of nowhere a useful bit of info just drops into your lap or, in this case, your inbox. Joanne McNeil’s latest newsletter contains this little aside:

I was looking for a quote about efficiency in life…something said by a…an…economist? Someone not know for sentimentality? Something about…old shoes? Finally I plugged in the right search words and found it. here it is:

“I believe that one ought to have only as much market efficiency as one needs, because everything that we value in human life is within the realm of inefficiency—love, family, attachment, community, culture, old habits, comfortable old shoes.” — Edward Luttwak

I’m not sure when or how I first came across it, but it appears in Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind.

I’ve just started working on a thing—or what may turn out to be a number of things, or perhaps just a thread that runs through a number of things which I am and will be doing?—which revolves around the definition of the word “efficiency” as used by economists, as contrasted to the way the rest of us tend to use it. As such, that Luttwak quote is a gift, because it illustrates exactly the point I’m trying to work with, albeit in an unusually poetic and roundabout way.

Thanks, Joanne! Hopefully some random snippet that I throw out here will help someone else out, and I will get to pay the favour forward…

struck by the fact of your own mortality

From a 1984 Paris Review interview with James Baldwin:

INTERVIEWER: This brings us to your concern with reality as being history, with seeing the present shaded by everything which occurred in a person’s past. James Baldwin has always been bound by his past, and his future. At forty, you said you felt much older than that.

BALDWIN: That is one of those things a person says at forty, at forty especially. It was a great shock to me, forty. And I did feel much older than that. Responding to history, I think a person is in sight of his or her death around the age of forty. You see it coming. You are not in sight of your death at thirty, less so at twenty-five. You are struck by the fact of your mortality, that it is unlikely you’ll live another forty years. So time alters you, actually becoming either an enemy or a friend.

INTERVIEWER: You seem very troubled—but not by death?

BALDWIN: Yes, true, but not at all by death. I’m troubled over getting my work done and over all the things I’ve not learned. It’s useless to be troubled by death, because then, of course, you can’t live at all.

the feared disseminators of complexity

A new discovery, made within Simon Reynolds’ response to the shuttering of Beyond the Beyond: Matti Swiedmann’s Red Velvet Corridor.

Top of the stack of posts at present is this thing, rambling around in Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, Baudrillard… all the intervals in that haunting earworm of a scale that I’m still teaching myself to play. I got as far as this passage before knowing I was on board:

… all this and more runs the serious risk of a common accusation, perhaps an accurate one, of pseudo-intellectualism. I’m not about to mount a defence of every pseud and poseur on the planet or pull off some kind of reversal here, but the way this accusation is levelled all too often amounts to little more than a crude, general anti-intellectualism. It’s the kind of attitude that insists you don’t use too many complicated ideas or terms lest the poor audience are left in the dark, that you must, above all, communicate with the utmost simplicity and clarity, spell it out in terms a child could understand, assume your audience might as well be children in fact. It harks back to a kind of notion of “appealing to the common man” that practically infantilizes the public, and thereby assumes that the priority, rather than perhaps surprising challenging, educating or confronting the mythical reader, is to offer them something familiar, if not comforting then firmly within known coordinates of discomfort. The anti-intellectualism contained often within the criticism for instance of “over-intellectualising” a subject like music flags us down and demands that we cease our attempts to surprise and confront; those who will not lay down arms become the pseuds of popular imagination, the feared disseminators of complexity, those who won’t respect the traditional boundary between “normal people” and worlds beyond their ken.

I guess one upside of the demise of the blog as a popular medium is that there’s space for people to write like this and leave the comments open without having to spend hours of every day wading through the moronic vitriol of replyguy chumps. Blogs may be dead media, but old infrastructures have a tendency of hanging around and being put to new uses once they become unprofitable… Reynolds’s beloved Hardcore Continuum relied upon the graveyards of British industry to be its seeding-bed, after all. It’s nice to know there’s still some of us out here, dancing in the ruins.

unknowable differences populating an imagined horizon

Struggling to write on sociological topics (or indeed on anything that engages significantly with social dimensions, whether academically or otherwise)? David Beer is, too:

… beyond the problems of the speed of change and a lack of focus, there is also a sense that the thing I’d normally be analysing – society – will not be the same. Unknowable differences are currently populating an imagined horizon. Those futures should be examined, but I’m also waiting to see what the social world that emerges will look like. It’s hard to do sociology and social science when you aren’t quite sure what the social is and how it is working. It could be that increased networking, heightened and more visual social media connections, video links, mobile tracking and other features will persist, these will need to be thought through in detail.

The new social formations might well be even more technologically centered than those that went before. The scale of the changes might even mean that we will need to rethink the domain assumptions, ideas and theories that have underpinned social analysis. Maybe, as things settle into their new formations, some new openings will be found. Social research at a distance is proving hard to fathom. Once any new variants of the social can be seen then the possibilities for understanding will need to be widely explored.

This is an issue that is coming up a lot among colleagues and friends at the moment. It thus feels a little odd to find myself in one of my more seemingly productive phases… but that may have something to do with a significant chunk of my last fifteen years having been spent in imitation of the lock-down experience when it comes to patterns of working: as much as I’m not particularly happy to be back there, working in my living-room is actually far more familiar to me than having an office to go to and colleagues to hang out with. It may also be related to my having withdrawn from the attention-barrage of socnets far earlier—though that means I’ve been feeling that detachment-from-the-immediate for far longer, too, and I’m as yet uncertain as to whether that’s a net win with regard to my work. (With regard to my mental health, however, it remains perhaps the smartest move I’ve ever made.)

I guess the takeaway point here is that, if you’re struggling to concentrate on writing about the world, don’t be too hard on yourself; some of the greatest minds in that business are struggling, too.

(That said, the Hot-Take Futures Factory still seems to be running at full tilt, but I think that serves only to underscore the point Beer is making: any serious engagement with social issues requires the starting admission that prediction is bunk at the best of times, and all the more so under the current state of fluxion. But ThoughtLords gotta ThoughtLord, amirite? Those Teslas won’t pay for themselves.)

discontinuity against ubiquity: narrative form and climate crisis

Lots of food for thought (and suggestions of novels to read) in this LARB dialogue on the topic of “fiction in the age of climate catastrophe” between authors Anne Charnock and James Bradley. It’s all of interest, but the following clips are relevant enough to merit excerpting here for reference purposes:

James Bradley:

The problem, I quickly realized, is that climate change is incredibly difficult to write about. Not just for all the obvious reasons to do with its gradual nature and inhuman scale, but because of its unboundedness, or what Amitav Ghosh has called “the inescapable continuities” of the Anthropocene. And that sense that climate change touches everything, and exceeds the kinds of temporalities humans normally inhabit meant that I quickly realized the subject was impossibly huge, and in some real sense writing a novel about climate change was like trying to write a novel about everywhere and everything.

The solution I came up with […] was to switch that problem around, and instead of trying to write a book about everything, writing quite a small story about a family across time. I think at the outset I thought that would let me come at the problem from different directions, and to capture a longer view by showing change over time. But once I was working on the novel, I realized it was useful in other ways as well: on the one hand shifting viewpoints and characters let me focus in on the affective dimension I wanted to capture, but it was also very effective at showing the incremental nature of change without me needing to foreground it.

[…]

I think there are probably a couple of things going on in this retreat from unitary narrative. One is writers developing a set of narrative conventions capable of engaging with the peculiar challenges of writing about climate change and environmental crisis. But I suspect it’s also another example of the way climate crisis resists and disrupts narrative more generally. Because even these kinds of narrative structures impose a kind of order and shape on something that exceeds human comprehension.

Anne Charnock:

I have always thought of fragmentation as a form that mirrors the complex lives we now lead. […] I agree that a discontinuous form works well for narratives on climate catastrophe, allowing the author to switch setting and switch voice, staccato in style, without warning. The reader may struggle to keep up, but isn’t that how we all feel with the onslaught of climate news from around the world? Each story declaring “the hottest,” “the wettest,” “the most destructive.” I’ve recently read a good example of this staccato approach, Stillicide (2019), a short and poetic novel by Cynan Jones about a future UK suffering from acute water shortages.

[…]

… I agree that fragmentation is an effective tactic in dealing with the “unboundedness” of climate change that you mention, and which Amitav Ghosh has interrogated.

James Bradley:

[… Amitav Ghosh’s 2019 novel] Gun Island is a really interesting reminder that the sort of fragmentation and mutation we’re talking about isn’t just about narrative fragmentation, it’s also about deeper kinds of rupture and transformation. That’s something you see very clearly in the work of people like Jeff VanderMeer and Karin Tidbeck, both of whom use the weird and the uncanny to capture the way environmental crisis dislocates and unhinges reality, and the rise of the eerie and various kinds of ghost stories and hauntings (a phenomenon VanderMeer and Robert Macfarlane have both written about very eloquently). I also think there’s a more fundamental dislocation at work, though, in the way the Anthropocene and climate crisis overwhelm narrative and rationality altogether. That collapse of meaning is difficult to think about, let alone write about, but you see it emerging in the critiques of modernity and progress embedded in the work of people such as Paul Kingsnorth and Roy Scranton, and in a fictional context in some of the weirder and more confronting fiction coming out of the UK at present.

Two levels of interest for me here. (Attention conservation note: authorial/academic navel-gazing hereafter.)

First of all, regarding my own fiction work (currently very much stalled and sidelined, but still nagging at me most days):now, I found myself drawn to fragmentary or mosaic narratives as far back as my Masters dissertation piece (so, 2011-12). In that particular case, the catastrophe I was trying to explore was not climate change, and indeed wasn’t entirely a mimetic catastrophe, either*… but the sense that any genuinely significant disruption of context, even across a relatively limited geographical space, expresses itself precisely through the different and fragmentary perceptions and experiencings of multiple viewpoints. Or, more bluntly, catastrophes at scale (or possibly of scale?) simply can’t be comprehended by any one subjectivity, let alone depicted by one. In my ongoing project (much battered and blocked by the sociopolitcal events of the last three years, as well as the climactic ones), the multi-strand approach seemed so inevitable that I never questioned it at all… I would note in passing, however, that it’s not really so novel an approach (hah!), whether you look at e.g. DeLillo on the literary shelves, or Brunner in the genre nook. (Stand on Zanzibar contributed considerably to my interest in the mosaic form during my Masters, as I recall it.) Quite what this seeming resurgence of the techniques of high modernism might bespeak, I am not enough of a literary scholar to say… but I know that a lot of authors of my acquaintance have been drawn to it over the last decade or more. An instinctive narratological response to the times, or something to do with postmodernity’s systematic recrudescence of discarded cultural forms? Maybe both? I DUNNO.

Regarding my academic work with narratives of adaptation in the context of climate change: design fiction’s focus on the particularity of the “use case”, and the foregrounding of mundane experience as a way to bring contextual change into the frame, seems to have some similarity to Bradley’s approach noted above: tell a small story, and the large leaks in, intruding upon the narrative much as climate change intrudes upon our actual lives, both as a background litany in the culture, and—increasingly—as actual concrete adversity and obduracy to activities and lifeways we heretofore never questioned. Where the line lies between “only practical mode of depiction” and “mode of depiction selected by and for cultural and environmental circumstances” would appear to be an open question, or perhaps a pointless one.

[ * — With hindsight, it’s obvious that the catastrophe in my Masters piece was in fact very personal and individual, at least in its origins: it was me working out what it meant to have left a city where I’d spent over half my life, among other things. But thoughts about the plurality of experience of urban crises had been strongly prompted by the riots of 2011, I suspect; the hypermediation of that bundle of events—and, in a very different way, the Olympics immediately afterward—marked a serious turning point for me in a lot of ways, many of which I suspect I’m still working through to this day. ]