Tag Archives: style

all these words have been poisoned, right?

McKenzie Wark, interviewed at Believer:

… in Capital is Dead I wanted to ask the question of how have we innovated language—god, I hate that word, innovate. All these words have been poisoned, right? What’s the art, if I can say that, what’s the literary dimension of writing theory? It’s a genre of literature, Marx is a literary genius. We sort of lose track of that, creating language to describe new situations but in ways that don’t lose track of their genesis and genealogy. To write theory as a literary genre, to tackle that, rather than recycle these terms we picked up from the great famous names. 

BLVR: You mentioned in a previous interview that words just aren’t doing the work anymore and if they’re not doing the work we need to be creating new ones.

MW: I think to call it “bio-political-capitalism” or “neoliberal capital” or “post-fordist capital” or using a modifier that has a modifier on the front of it—it just strikes me as bad poetry. It’s the kind of thing an editor would strike. Here’s three words–what’s the one word that would do that job? If you keep using this old language you see how it’s connected to the past. There’s kind of an aesthetic dimension to theory as a genre of literature, and I want to make it fresh, make it new. A language of surprise. What I wanted to do in Capital is Dead is reinvigorate that sense of to write theory is a form of literature. 

So much this. My first Wark was her histories of the Situationists, and I’ve loved most everything I’ve read since then, particularly Molecular Red. And regular readers will know that I’m always-already on the same team as anyone who thinks “innovation” is a trash-fire suitcase word of the worst kind…

Elsewhere in this interview Wark points out that this isn’t about “dumbing down”, but rather a matter of avoiding the abstruse contortions and deference to deep specialist detail that academic theory can sometimes encourage. I’m probably biased, but I also feel that there are some disciplines where the horizontality and foxiness she’s advocating are more commonplace… environmental politics, f’rex, is a really small-c catholic field, less a discipline than an oddball bordertown at the juncture of a dozen different disciplines, where anything goes as long as it works. (By contrast, the old-school poli-sci folk at my department are, well, very old-school, with clear disciplinary and theoretical fidelity to a particular topic or approach. And there’s probably room for both?)

But yeah: part of the challenge of my own theoretical work (still pretty much on hold, because it’s not what I’m paid to do, and what I’m paid to do is keeping me plenty busy right now) is to absorb enough material from a big sheaf of fields and disciplines that I can demonstrate a useful grasp of it without getting sucked into the minutia, and then leap sidewise between/across/through those fields in such a way as to show conceptual connections that do explanatory work. S’why I’m assuming I’ll not have much of a chance placing it with a trad academic publisher, once I actually get it written; they’ll be like “please provide five keywords situating the work in the leading edge of the field” and I’ll be like “wait, I only get five?” That’s why Molecular Red was such an inspiration: partly because it’s a book that lives its own argument, so to speak—it doesn’t just argue for foxiness, it does foxiness—but also for the more direct feeling of “oh, wait, you can do this? You can write like this about this sort of stuff?” Easterling comes with a similar kick, as does late-style Haraway. Massive parallelism, unity of theme. Yes.

Fables of the deconstruction: Salmon (2020), An Event, Perhaps

Nice little biography of Derrida, this. A more manageable size than many of the man’s own books, it does a neat job of relating the philosopher and the philosophy, without being a hagiography in the case of the former, nor a full-bore “reading” in the case of the latter. Which makes it perhaps the ideal introduction to Derrida’s thought for someone (such as myself) who has read fragments here and there, and has a vague idea of where ideas like deconstruction sit (both philosophically and pop-culturally), but who has yet to actually tuck in to the texts themselves. Core ideas and themes are situated in the context of Derrida’s life and times, and of twentieth century philosophy in general; that these are simplifications is inevitable, particularly with a thinker as gordian and self-referential as Derrida. But that seems a fair price for what might stand as a rough map to prepare oneself for the exploration of a vast continent of ideas whose originality (and threat) are still manifest in the fear and loathing associated with his name—despite, as Salmon patiently explains, the complete absence of the relativist nihilism which is supposedly sourced in his work. This particular passage provides a succinct rebuttal to such accusations:

Of all the accusations, what seemed to sting most of all was the notion that his thinking was relativist, anything goes, and thus nihilistic. ‘Deconstruction’, he had reiterated in Memoires: For Paul de Man, ‘is anything but a nihilism or a scepticism. Why can one still read this claim despite so many texts that, explicitly, thematically and for more than twenty years have been demonstrating the opposite?’ Nihilism is an ontological claim that there is no truth. Deconstruction has no opinion on this. Nor does it on, say, pink elephants. What it does say is that we cannot know whether there is truth or not, which is an epistemological claim. So any assertion that there is truth is unprovable, and therefore whatever truth is offered should be analysed for the reasons why it is being offered.

Chapter 9, “Before the Law”

That these accusations were established by small groups of conservative academics in rival schools of philosophy and scholarship is a reminder that, for all their arguably increased intensity, the monstering of challenging ideas so prevalent in the present is not new, and nor are the methods thereof. One is tempted to suggest that the hazard to rationalist and analytical hegemony presented by Derrida’s ideas offers an explanation for their repeated misrepresentation—though as Salmon notes, and as my limited experience in the academy also suggests, misparsings based upon shallow readings, or indeed upon no readings at all, may be a significant part of the problem, too: to paraphrase Salmon, dismissing Derrida as a prolix relativist charlatan saves one the challenge of actually trying to read him.

I was particularly intrigued by the thread of Derrida’s work which aimed to demonstrate that “philosophy” is to some extent a generic form of writing—which is not at all to dismiss or denigrate it, nor to elevate, say, literature to a higher plane, but rather to argue that style and rhetoric are inextricable, and that metaphor is the root of all discourse. The parallels between analytical philosophy’s insistence on a very limited notion of truth in language and the “academic style” of writing (which, to belabour a point, is not a style which is taught, but rather a culture that is inculcated through osmosis, and just as opaque and frustrating as Derrida’s to anyone who has not normalised and internalised it) are notable; a doctrinaire positivism masquerading as a principled refusal to dirty one’s hands with “theory” or epistemology. While I plan to go to the source for the full experience, Salmon’s exploration of this theme has served to validate my prior attempts to push against (if not actually avoid) the “academic style”, and encourage me to bring more literary techniques to bear in my work to come. That’s unlikely to make things easy for me, of course… but hey, nothing worth doing is ever easy. Salmon’s story of Derrida—which, as he points out in Derrida’s own terms, is partial, in both senses of that term—doesn’t gloss over the difficulties and missteps (such as the De Man defence), but that serves to underline a consistency and fidelity which I find admirable, and worthy of some effort to emulate.

(I’d like to imagine I could emulate his terrifying levels of productivity, too, but, well, yeah, no. I wonder if that would even be possible now, to develop that sort of utter immersion in one’s work while being caught between on the one hand the relentlessness of the attention economy, and on the other the neoliberalisation of the academy? The sheer privilege of having the time to study deeply, without interruption from the demands of self-documentation and bureaucratic hoop-jumping, from the ubiquitous business ontology of modern scholarship… well, things are what they are, and one ends up where—and when—one is, and I’d do well to remember that in many respects I’ve rocked up to the plate with plenty more privilege than Derrida had when he started. The attitude is the thing to emulate, I guess, rather than the results.)

as events evaporate (material virtuality / virtual materiality)

Harbingers of middle-agedness, #836: your journey around/along the dialectical Möbius strip of culture brings you to points when echoes of multiple previous moments thereupon reflect back at you at the same time. Point in case: Kieran Press-Reynolds on the phenomenon of the virtual rave [via Reynolds Senior].

I’m old enough to not only recall the earlier (though admittedly far clunkier) precedent of partying in Second Life, plus the rather lower bandwidth but nonetheless plausible possibilities of a PHPBBS party tied to a streaming radio station… but also the mid-Nineties commodification of rave, to which I arrived too late to realise just how tawdry an imitation it was of its seed culture. I suspect it’s my now-more-informed awareness of the latter that allows me to feel myself wanting to do the standard middle-aged Kids These Days routine, and to catch myself before doing it. What was once authentic and vital and NOW to me was always-already a copy of a copy of a copy. Virtual raving isn’t meant for me, and nor should it be; it’s for young folk in a world that lacks the space—cultural, economic, physical—for them to go wild in the Actual. More power to them.

But man, the echoes… and the indicators, perhaps, of the pendulum’s backswings yet to come.

… can computer-mediated events ever live up to real-life ones? One of the obvious downsides to virtual raving is the lack of secondary experiences. You can’t meet up with friends and journey to the venue. You can’t mosh, you don’t get that delicious after-feeling of dizzy bliss, and you can’t grab a post-show 2AM pink-frosted donut from Dunkin. It almost feels too easy: You plop in front of a screen and click on an app or type in a URL. Even though going to clubs requires effort and discomfort, there’s seemingly more payoff for that investment of energy.

I vaguely recall someone—I want to say Irvine Welsh, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t him?—observing that a significant percentage of the thrill of drug-based subcultural activity came not from the drugs themselves, but rather from the obstacles overcome in the adventure of acquiring them, distributing them, getting them into the venue, sharing them at the afterparty in the basement of a crumbling four-storey terrace… you get the picture. Point being, it was an embodied experience—collectively embodied. Your McKennas and your Shulgins (and, IIRC, commentators like Reynolds Senior) pointed out the long paleohistory of the party as a shared and (sha)manic letting-down-of-the-hair, and I suspect the urge for that meatspace shindiggery will be harder to kill off than many are assuming right now… just as I suspect that the much-discussed and purportedly permanent upending of sociality due to the pandemic will be a far more temporary thing than is commonly claimed.

Perhaps I am just letting my nostalgia cloud my judgement? More than possible. But how’s this for an echo of post-rave clubland:

The culture surrounding an event is practically as important as the event itself. Club Q, for example, is one of the largest queer clubs on Zoom. Creatively misusing the videoconferencing app, Club Q has devised its own set of freaky features. One of these is what co-founder Andres Sierra calls “the jumbotron,” a sort of virtual rave equivalent to a sports stadium screen. Zoom allows the host of the room to choose which webcam to stream in the middle of the screen, making it both the biggest visible image and literally the center of everyone’s attention. When a club participant’s webcam gets selected, they become a momentary celebrity and freak out — just like with the blown-up shots of surprised spectators at a baseball match.

“It’s less about the celebrity who’s playing, and more a whole entire experience. The hierarchy between performer and audience is gone, and now the audience is part of the show,” Sierra says. “You have to see it in a different way from a real-life club… people come in and say, ‘I didn’t think it was going to be like that!’ Or, ‘Oh, this is way better than reading about it.’”

It was already a hollow fiction by then, of course, but the clubland mags of the mid-Nineties still regularly recited the catechism that contrasted DJ culture to the hoary hero-worship of rockism: The audience was the star! The hierarchy had been defeated! All this even as Cream and others were spearheading a return to the hierarchy, just with a new pantheon installed, their sticker-strewn flightcases now cradling rare vinyl instead of vintage Fenders and Gibsons.

That said, scenes such as Gatecrasher sustained a sense that the audience were a big part of the show. But you could say exactly the same of rockist culture at various points in its history. To pick just a few obvious examples: UK punk, 1976-77 (and arguably beyond); the Blitz Kids and New Romo; even 1990s Britpop and Britrock, to some extent (which I recall as being very dressy and performative things, at both gigs and clubs alike). That tension between the hero on the stage and the hero on the dancefloor will likely oscillate for as long as there’s a music culture to pluck at it… and each new generation will believe that it’s invented the latest inversion, just as it should.

But it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t go all infrastructural on it, right? Right—and here’s the crux:

… but virtual fashion has one big thing going for it: sustainability. It proposes a pixel-sized alternative to the over 32 billion pounds of textiles generated every year, 22 billion of which end up in landfills, according to the EPA in 2017. “Virtual clothing is a product of information technology, which means it’s made out of data and uses no resources except the electricity to keep the machines running,” explains Florian Mecklenburg, co-founder of the design studio Goys & Birls. He recently formed NEW FORMAT, a digital group dedicated to exploring virtual fashion. “Once a piece is created, it can be multiplied—limitless. You can copy and paste the data, and everyone has access to it. If people accept digital clothing, they will rethink their consumer behavior.” Obviously, virtual clothing could never outright eliminate the need to wear fabric in real life, but it could help reduce the mammoth waste caused by empty, vacuous practices like fast fashion.

“[U]ses no resources except the electricity to keep the machines running”… that “except” is doing a whole lot of work, there, just like the server farms and power stations keeping the networks alive.

To be clear, this is not me making an old-man argument against virtual raving, but rather an argument against this shrugging away of the materiality of the virtual. Stuff happening on the internet is not inherently more sustainable than stuff happening elsewhere; in many cases, it’s quite the opposite. Likewise, I’m all for the end of fast fashion—but the connection between rapid and consequence-free swapping of digital outfits and the seductiveness of brands and image on the one hand, and the disposability and effaced consequences of fast fashion on the other, is being rather conveniently waved away here, in much the same way that the materiality of the virtual is waved away with the comment about electricity. All that is solid melts into hot air blown away from a processor chip, as someone didn’t quite say.

As long as humans fetishize commodities and care about appearances, a sizable portion of hypebeasts and shoe fiends won’t care if the items they buy exist in solid form. If a brand like Supreme or Saint Laurent creates enough mystique around an item, consumers will lap it up. The hallucination of cool that comes with owning a rare item from a chic brand has always been what these people were really purchasing — virtual fashion simply keeps the image and jettisons the solid product.

And I just don’t buy this argument at all. I’m reminded of the Gibson riff in (I think) Mona Lisa Overdrive, where a character observes that, in a world where idealised telegenic beauty via elective surgery is a commonplace, the uniqueness and cachet of an individual’s unaltered features ends up being amplified rather than muted, at least for those who can afford not to perform the signifiers of the center of the bellcurve.

Point being: if everyone can get that virtual Kanye-designed Supreme plaid bucket-hat (or whatever it is), the kudos in having the thing is erased immediately. Style (as opposed to fashion) is about scarcity, the search, the time and effort and money expended on the self-curation of the image—it’s about uniqueness, and the aspiration to such. Endlessly duplicable virtual threads, rather than killing off the desire for material threads, will serve only to increase demand for them—and where there is demand, there will be production, because capitalism. The virtual rave is thus not an alternative to fast fashion, but a new captive-market platform for marketing it. (I could probably do a side-bit on the low barriers to duplication and IP piracy here, but I’m supposed to be working…)

The closer:

The virtual rave isn’t a fad — it’s a point on a much larger, longer timeline, a timeline tracking humanity’s slow, hazy descent into becoming totally techno-human, where everything we do in real-life can be done online with equal efficiency and enjoyment level, and we never have to move or leave our bedrooms at all.

Well, we were always-already totally techno-human… but that’s a theoretical quibble (and personal hobby-horse) that this piece doesn’t really merit. The bit that matters here, and the bit that makes me feel old (and more than a bit sad), is the second half, which describes the retreat into a Matrix-esque existence of virtual thrills experienced from isolated pods in terms which, while not exactly utopian (notwithstanding the word “efficiency”), nonetheless suggest something more enthusiastic than mere acceptance.

Maybe it’s too much to expect a sense of dispossession from a generation who’ve never really known the access to public space and shared experience that mine was privileged enough to get? I dunno. But my hope, nonetheless, is that the virtual rave marks the peak of the pendulum’s swing in that direction, and that in a handful more years, the kids will come raging out of those bedrooms and find a way (and a space) to make noisy, colourful chaos in the Actual. Speaking only for myself, growing old in a world where that isn’t happening is perhaps the most depressing version of late adulthood I can imagine—a world where the forces of order have triumphed totally.

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. ]

These are the ghosts that get me

Helena “Griefbacon” Fitzgerald, applying her inimitable turns of phrase to the shifting of the seasons, both external and internal:

It’s easy to forget, in the long memory of a worse time, that there was something bright before it; it’s hard not to write a story where every single thing one does before things go wrong is the cause of what went wrong, joy into culpability and fun into guilt. As though bad ideas are never parties; as though parties are always harbingers. As though everything has to be something more than itself.

Passages like that are why I rarely publish memoir material: mine is always too overwrought, while Fitzgerald has the knack of pitching it just right, sat square in the gap in the mix between profound and mundane — words that move you, but which might nonetheless have been said aloud by someone thinking things through while sat across the table from you.

Again, listen:

This is a brutal time of year, even if all times of year are brutal in their own way. No matter how much I try to convince myself that it’s good, actually, the sudden dark after daylight savings feels like an accounting of all the ways I have wasted time and gotten older.

So much more thoughtful than my own recent railing against the elements, no?

(No, I’m not beating up on myself and my own writing, here — this is just a way for me to externalise thoughts about style. By trying to explain it to you, the imagined audience of this blog, I explain it to myself in a way that can’t be achieved by merely thinking about it, or by scribbling in a notebook. I remain one of those writers who writes less to share what they think about something, and more to discover it.)