To the best of my memory, I have only ever been on a sailing boat once. Or, I have only been happily in control of a sailing boat once (there was a time we had to try windsurfing in primary school, a time whose details have, thankfully, long been repressed). It was 2005, I was twelve years old, and had won a competition through the local youth club to go on a sailing trip to Oban. I don’t remember anything about what I must’ve learned regarding sailing, but I do recall a beautiful suite of seafaring terms: a special vocabulary which transformed previously mundane structural features into curious artefacts of mysterious potential: cleat, keel, stem, rudder, transform, tiller, clew, boom, shroud, telltale, jib, winch, deck and spreader. The man in charge was a hardened fisherman type; I don’t recall his name, but we called him the skipper. He was dismayed to learn I was a vegetarian, having packed little in the way of vegetables for our journey. I was happy to live off Ovaltine, jam rolls and digestives for the following days. It was such an odd combination of children—were we still children?—on that trip. No popular kids, but a few of the scarier misbehaviours (probably not okay to still call them neds), the freaks and geeks—then me, wherever I fit in. ‘Goth’, which in the case of my school was generally singular. Somehow, we all bonded rather than fought in the tiny space of that boat.
One boy, who would always be in fights, bullying and hunking his weight around, was so sweet to me. He saw I had eaten barely anything and gave me a whole bar of Cadbury Mint Chocolate, insisting I had all of it. It was such a kind gesture that I remember it still. Everyone was different at sea: softer, more honest. We were willing to admit our social vulnerabilities; there was no-one, no context, to perform for. A boy I’ll call L. opened up to me about his love for 2Pac, and when Coldplay came on the skipper’s stereo (it was their first truly mehhhh album, X&Y), we shared a little rant about how cheesy it was. We ate fruit out of tins, pulled scarves over our faces on deck and watched the coloured houses of Tobermory loom closer. The skipper let us all have a go at the tiller; he told us stories from previous trips, about how the weather had turned nasty and they’d had to pull themselves through miniature hurricanes. I found myself craving the wild mad weather, even as I was shivering in some inadequate waterproof jacket (I have a history of coming ill prepared to such outings). The skipper and I sort of oddly bonded, since I was usually the first one up in the group. He’d put the kettle on and we’d go out on deck to watch the sky. He’d point out things to look for in the cloud patterns, the colours that bloomed on the horizon. It’s this kind of practical knowledge that I thirst for. Chefs talking to me about how to sharpen knives, bake brownies; motorcyclists betraying the secrets to keeping your speed; engineers talking about formulas and team rivalries and how to build a bike wheel. I’m completely incapable of almost anything practical, so it’s always a magic alchemy to me. When people ask what I want to be when I grow up, I say shepherdess, even though I have little idea of what that entails, beyond reading the excellent The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks and occasionally listening to The Archers.I think I’d just be content to wander around hills.
Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight…
I awake to steady rainfall, first day of November. I have been thinking a lot about that sailing trip recently, mostly because I’ve been doing writing workshops in Greenock, and the nature of the place as a harbour town has everyone often turning back to boats and fishing topics. I talk to a chef at work about fishing, not because I’m all that interested in fish but because there’s something about its psychology that reminds me of times gone by. Once, I took myself out to Cardross on the train, following the road up to Ardmore to sit on the point which was a good spot for anglers. It was so quiet and still, the beaches strewn with lumps of quartz. I sat there for an hour or so, listening to the steady lap of the estuary, then slowly made my way home, tearing my skin on all the brambles. It had the feeling of a secret, overgrown place. A little out the way, a nest you could curl into: an almost island. I recall those tiny islands on the Swan Pond at Culzean Castle, where we used to leap across to. As a kid, I’d hide among the bamboos and rushes and feel entirely in my own little world. The pathways and grasses were lit with secret creatures, this 12th World I’d created—it was over a decade prior to Pokemon Go, but here I was in my augmented reality. I’d sit up on the top of the stairs reading for as late as possible, imagining that I was on top of a waterfall, and all before me was water cascading instead of carpet. I’d lie upside down and the ceiling became the first planes of a new universe. I’d wake up early and write it all down; but those pages are lost to whatever antique sale of the past stole my youth.
Now I am adult, less governed by diurnal rhythms. I find myself lost in the long bleed of night into day, up far too late in the bewildering recesses of the ocean online, the oceanic internet. Far corners where articles smudge their HEX numbers in true form down the page and I am rubbing my eyes to see beyond light. Time, perhaps, to rehash that old metaphor, surfing the web. Occasionally, some page would bring me crashing back down in the shallows; I’d wake up, ten minutes later, groggy on my keyboard. Press the refresh key. Instagram has me crossing continents at bewildering speed, lost in Moroccan markets, Mauritian beaches and Mexico City. In the depths of some nightclub then the heights of a Highland peak. So many fucking faces. Closeups of homemade cakes, delicious whisky. Memories. Oscillations I can hardly breathe in, watching my thumb make its onward scroll without my direction. The rhythms become flow, become repetition. I need an anchor. It’s been hours and hours and maybe I’m hungry.
On the boat, whose name I have sadly lost, we slept by gender in two separate cabin rooms. They were tiny, low-ceilinged, and we were just a handful of slugs pressed tight in our sleeping bags. It was better than a sleepover, because there was no pressure to stay up all night and we were all too exhausted from the sea air to talk much. I’d close my eyes and feel the steady rock of the boat’s hull as it bobbed on the water. There was a deep throb of something hitting against the walls outside, maybe a buoy or rope; it felt like a heartbeat. Sleeping in many strange places, the floors of friends’ flats and houses, in tents and on trains, I try to revisit that snug tight room where sleep was difficult to separate from consciousness itself. It was all of a darkness. Something Gaston Bachelard says in The Poetics of Space: ‘We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection. Something closed must retain our memories, while leaving them their original value as images.’ There was no mirror in that boat, so all I remember are smells and objects. No sign of my own pale and windswept face. Everything we ate was an old-fashioned brand; it made me think of rationing and traditional values. I wasn’t quite sure what that even meant.
I need an anchor. A place to dock in.
Governed by some primordial instinct, I go to make my dinner around the same time most nights—which happens to be one in the morning. The shipping forecast used to be the last thing on the radio, before a sea of white noise till dawn. When cutting veg, my fingers weak from another long day, I switch on the radio and there are the familiar intonations. I listen as I would a poem or a shopping list, a beautiful litany of place names, nouns, directives. I have no idea what any of it signifies. It’s been a double shift, perhaps, or an extreme stint in the library, a walk across the city. My mind is full of words and sounds, so many conversations. The debris of the day threatens to spill out as a siren’s cry, and how easily I could slump against the kitchen cupboards, wilt upon the floor. Make myself nothing but driftwood, no good turning till morning. But instead I chop veg, listen to the shipping forecast. It’s difficult to think you deserve food, even when your body’s burning for it and you haven’t eaten for hours. But there are so many other things to read or do! You need an anchor, a reason.
The general synopsis at midnight.
Many of my childhood lost afternoons, bleeding to evenings, were spent playing The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker on a GameCube I shared with my brother—avoiding the narrative quests and dungeons in favour of epic ventures across that cobalt ocean. What I wanted was that rousing sense of the wind’s spirit, the freedom to glide and find new islands. Whirlpools, tornados and Chtlulu-like creatures hurled me out to stranger lands. It was all so beautifully rendered, an expansive thalassic field of possibility; with each route I was fashioning some lovelorn story for my lonely hero. The ocean has always represented for me some point of erasure where reality dissolves into imagination. I think maybe it’s this perceptive meshing that we need to attune to in order to make sense of the vast scale effects of the Anthropocene. How else to grasp those resonant shockwaves of consequence, whose manifestations often transcend our human grasp of time and space?
Headache, Viking, southwesterly veering. The same refrain, moderate or good. When occasionally poor at times, do I picture the sailors with rain lashing their faces, rising through mist towards mainland? Is that even where they want to head? Rain at times, smooth or slight, variable 3 or 4. The dwelling conditionals; always between, never quite certain. The weather being this immense, elusive flux you can guess at, the way paint might guess at true colour. Cyclonic 4 or 5. In Fitzroy are there storms circling around the bay? Very few of these places could I point to on a map. I like the ambiguity, the fact of their being out there, starring the banks and shores and isles of Britain and beyond: Shannon, Fastnet, the Irish Sea. There’s a sense of being ancient, from Fair Isle to Faeroes.
I went to a talk last week for Sonica Fest where a girl from Fair Isle talked about climate change, how her home island would probably one day be swallowed by the sea. I can’t help picturing a Cocteau Twins song when she says it. She dropped handmade bronze chains in different oceans so you could see the divergent levels of oxidation, relative to saline content. It was beautiful, this abstract material rendering of elemental time. The world rusts differently; we are all objects, exposed to variant weathers. Her name was Vivian Ross-Smith and she talked about ‘islandness’, a project which connects contemporary art practise with locality and tradition. The term for me also conjured some sense of the world as all these archipelagos, whose land mass is slowly being ravaged by warming waters. The pollutants we put in. Islandness betrays our vulnerability, the way we were as 12-year-olds at the mercy of the tides, the weather and our gruff skipper. I had little conception of what climate change was, but even then I didn’t set a division between humankind and nature.
Back on the boat, I traced my own moods in the swirls of those mysterious currents, dipping my fingers in the freezing North Sea. Who are we before puberty, pure in our childish palette of pastel moods? When I think about how that sea spreads out to become the Atlantic, so vast and impossibly deep, I grow a bit nauseous. Maybe that’s the sublime; an endless concatenation of seasickness, feeling your own weakness and smallness in the face of great space, matter, disaster. How easy you too could become debris.
Increasingly, that waltzing Cocteau Twins song feels more like an elegy, haunted by the shrill of soprano, those shoegaze guitars resounding like notes through a cataract. A line from Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’* I always remember, ‘The sounding cataract / Haunted me like a passion’. Interplay between feeling and form, sound and vision. The ocean warming, the beat steady and mesmerising. Are we sleepwalking into the Anthropocene, over and over again, a lurid repetition compulsion? Why we keep burning up fossil fuels, emitting our plumes of carbon, senseless in the face of a terrible sensorium? I crave solid objects that show up the archives of history, those plastiglomerates of Frankenstein geology, the warped materials of the Earth’s slow and drawn-out hurting. Liz Fraser’s operatic howls are maybe the mourning of the land itself, begging to be swallowed by the sea. A saving? If originally we came from water, hatched out of amniotic sacks or evolved from subaquatic origins, then maybe we return to its oceanic expanse, its blue screen of death. When I’m anxious and needing to write furiously, write against the tides of exhaustion or time, I listen to Drexciya—Detroit-based techno that harks back to Plato’s mythology of Atlantis, via Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic. There’s this crazed evocation of diaspora, drowning, a mysterious race of merpeople. What evolves below water, what is spawning in the recesses of subculture; what resists the mainstream, the violent currents of everyday life. This subterranean city is a ‘sonic third space’. I can’t help but think of my own other planet, that 12th World separate yet attached to daily reality; somewhere distant but still impossibly intimate. That resonant intensity that drives you from sleep and into midnight discos of the mind, all pulsation of lights, wonder, horror.
There’s a sense that sound itself can be physically embracing. This is maybe how it crosses over into sonic third space, where embedded mythologies flourish in resonant affect. Where sound becomes tangible, making vibrational inscriptions of code upon the body like transient hieroglyphs of an assemblage’s trellising energy. In Tom McCarthy’s novel C (2010), the protagonist Serge is obsessed with hacking the radio to tune into the ether. Alongside the obvious supernatural connotations, there’s a more pressing suggestion that Serge is able to make his entire being become channel for sound. He lays on a ship as I once lay on a boat, listening to the warm stirs, the conversational blips and signals of objects:
The engine noise sounds in his chest. It seems to carry conversations from other parts of the vessel: the deck, perhaps, or possibly the dining room, or maybe even those of its past passengers, still humming through its metal girders, resonating in the enclosed air of its corridors and cabins, shafts and vents. Their cadences rise and fall with the ship’s motion, with such synchronicity that it seems to Serge that he’s rising and falling not so much above the ocean per sea as on and into them: the cadences themselves, their peaks and troughs…
McCarthy’s lyrical clauses accumulate this notion of sound as spreading, seeping into words and orifices, surfaces. Presences, absence. A lilting simultaneity between the movements and pulses of objects. Sound becomes material; is spatialised as cadence, lapping the edge of Serge’s senses with lapidary, enticing effect—always tinged, perhaps, with a lisping hint of danger. The sounds, after all, also evoke the dead. There’s a radio drama by Jonathan Mitchell, where the protagonist has developed a device which allows you to extract sound from wood. There’s the idea that wooden surfaces absorb sounds from their surroundings, and the time and quality of storage depends on the type of wood. It’s a brilliant sci-fi exploration of what would happen ethically if we could extract auditory archives from material surroundings—the problems and possibilities of surveillance, anamnesis and so on. Consequences for human and nonhuman identity, the boundaries between life and death, silence and noise.
Do the walls hear everything? I think of rotting driftwood, how porous and light it is. How its every indent, line and scar marks some story of the tides, the stones and the sea. Robinson Crusoe, chipping the days away as notches on wood. I think of the hull of that boat, perhaps coated in plastic, sticky with flies and algae.
On the last day of our sailing trip, we were sitting round the table of the cabin, docked in Oban harbour, reading the papers and having a cup of tea. Our youth club leader got a text from a friend back home. She was informing us of the London 7/7 bombings. This was a time prior to having internet on our phones. We weren’t so wirelessly in tune with everything everywhere always. But that little signal, a couple words blipped through the ether, brought the sudden weight of the world crashing back down upon our maritime eden. I had family in London who escaped the attack by the skin of their teeth, a fortuitous decision to take that day a different route. How everything was at once the dread of hypotheticals. I did not understand the vast arterial networks of terror that governed the planet; these things happened in flashbulb moments, their ripple effects making what teachers called history. Somehow it didn’t seem real. Bombs went off all the time on tv; I grew up with the War in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those televised wars were the ambient backdrop to everything on the news. Later, my friends would wile away their teens shooting each other on Call of Duty. It was all logistics, statistics, the spectacle of bodies and explosions. Nobody explained it. We were distracted by MSN Messenger, then those boys with their controllers tuning in and out of conversation, signing online then drifting away into present-absence. X-Box (Live). Signifier: busy. It was good to be away from the telly in the relative quiet of the boat, startled instead by foghorns and seagulls. But even then, we remained connected.
The Shipping Forecast has been issued, uninterrupted, since 1867. Its collation of meteorological data provides a map of sorts, a talismanic chart of patterns and movements, currents, pressures, temperatures—something that helps millions of sailors out at sea. I look at such visual charts and truly it boggles me. I prefer grasping such data as sound, delivered in the hypnotic lilt of that voice: its clear diction and poetic pace, calling me home. I think of the west coast, the bluish slate-grey of the sea. Becoming variable, then becoming southerly, rain or showers, moderate or good. Always between things’ becoming, becoming. There’s the pitch-black womb of a cabin again, the childlike promise of dreams and sleep, a genuine rest I’ve forgotten entirely. Listening makes it okay to be again, buoyed up halfway between where I am and where I’ve been. A constellation of elsewheres to placate insomnia’s paranoia; to be in winter’s dark heart or the long nights of summer, endlessly tuning to atmosphere, cyclonic later, slowly veering from the way. My present tense is always eluding, like ‘In Limbo’ with Thom Yorke’s seaward crooning, the morse code of emotion in whirlpool arpeggios, closing and bleeping and droning on a wave far away, the spiralling weather, the fantasy…Another message I can’t read.
*Full title, of course, being ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798’.
It’s not all about realising you can get 10% off at Topshop again (although my ID photo is so bad this year I’m no sure I can brandish it in public). I didn’t know what to expect, going back to uni after a year out. It all happened so fast. Working for over a year as a full time waitress, doing 35-55 hour weeks, I didn’t really give myself the headspace to prepare myself for what uni entails. Despite knowing for several months that I had secured my place, a Masters in MLitt Modernities at Glasgow Uni just seemed something far in the distance, the uncertain plane which I would embark upon after an endless summer.
No matter how it feels at the time, summer is never endless. August was a strange old month, and horrible, tragic things kept happening around me. Amidst all that, it didn’t seem real, making my way through the infernal labyrinth of MyCampus; applying for scholarships, spending inordinate time staring at screens again, making lists of things to be done. I found myself in a room up high in the Boyd Orr building, listening to the inimitable and infectiously enthusiastic Rob Maslen give a speech about the strange history of these hallowed walls; being introduced to the university as if it were the first time all over again.
It is weird going back to the same university after a year out, especially if you’ve not gone far. I walked up the hill listening to Tigermilk feeling blissfully like a total Glasgow cliché and it was like nothing had changed at all; it was my first seminar of the semester and I felt bright and hopeful. Glasgow gifted us with a particularly gorgeous autumn, trees bronzing languidly into darkening violet as twilight fell and I was still sitting by the fountain, making notes on poetry. I tried to take walks in Kelvingrove as often as possible. Quite quickly, however, the daylight ran out. Nights drew in. Still stuck in waitressing mode, such thing as a sleeping pattern proving an elusive remnant lost somewhere back in 2015, I found myself going to sleep at 5am every night, often staying in the library till everyone on the floor had left and the lights kept going out automatically. There I was, alone in the dark in front of a dull-glowing screen (though one must note the upgrade in PCs at Glasgow Uni Library, which are much preferable). It’s easy to spiral into that maddening routine, trying to do all the reading, make notes on everything. I’ve never been a meticulous note-taker, not by a long shot, but I like to handwrite things and have a tangible record of ideas and theorists and possible avenues for further study.
I would walk home at 2am, stumbling tired-eyed through Kelvinside, hoping for a glimpse of the river, some tangible reminder of nature. How long had it been since I’d seen the sea? During reading week, I allowed myself a cheeky day trip to Arran, which felt so unreal it was almost magic. The days passed and ideas started to percolate in my head. The power of procrastination unleashed itself again. I did more creative writing in the past three months than probably I’ve done all year. I guess the more you read, the more you want to write. I sat on level 11 and watched the sunset over Park Circus, making airy, vague notes about queer temporality and thing theory on a 60p sketchpad. I went to seminars and was reminded of how nice it is to listen to people share a subject, to listen to experts talk with passion about something they must have covered a thousand times before and yet still they can find fresh things to say about it. To actually talk to said experts about such interesting topics (instead of merely serving them glasses of wine and plates of fish, as the Oran Mor waitress will often do for GU academics). Although a bit scary at first (not least because I had a screenwriter and published author in one of my seminars!), it was nice to actually have proper formal discussions about books again. Often we veered slightly off-topic, with Trump becoming the proverbial wall against which we hit our heads in frustration, but everything felt prescient, useful. I went to visiting speaker seminars with the likes of Stephen Ross, Graeme Macdonald and Darren Anderson, who talked about all manner of interesting topics: Beckett’s invention of the teenager, petroculture and the politics of space and architecture. Having been at Glasgow Uni four and a half years now, I was still struggling to find half the rooms and buildings I needed to get to.
I went to a couple of nights at The Poetry Club in Finnieston and actually read poems aloud to real humans. Got a few wee things published here and there. Went to a ceilidh. Realised that I want to do lots and lots of creative writing and really try and learn from people. Started writing music reviews for RaveChild which has been really rewarding, not least because it’s encouraged me to broaden my musical horizons and go to more gigs. Started tweeting again. I managed to go to a few Creative Writing Society workshops, wrote a collaborative sonnet and played around with tarot cards. Went to Creative Conversations at the Chapel and saw very smart and fascinating people talk about writing: Amy Liptrot, Liz Lochhead, Mallachy Tallack, for example. Developed many creative crushes on various academics.
My stress levels tend to rise in tandem with the library’s rising busyness and so I stopped going altogether about a month ago. I’ve more or less forgotten what sunlight is, except for the wee slant that comes through the window of the building in Professors’ Square where every Thursday we had our Modern Everyday seminar. I sit in bed everyday and try and write and write. I spent the first four weeks of this semester trying to read a section fromThe Derrida Wordbookeveryday, until my brain started to melt a bit too much and I was thinking in riddles. One day I was so tired I woke up at 10.46 for an 11am seminar but somehow still made it on time, looking like something the cat had dragged in. I tried to get my head round Blanchot, and even went to a reading group where we poured over The Space of Literature and maybe I came out with some sense of the link between writing and death. I wrote reflective journals for my core course seminars and every time came back to Tom McCarty references. The man and his ideas are just so seductive.
Coming to the end of my first semester as a postgrad student, I’m not sure how I feel. I didn’t wash my hair for nearly four weeks. On the one hand, my brain feels heavier, I’m exhausted, probably much less fit; I’ve lost contact with a few friends. On the other, I’ve got ideas all the time, I’m meeting new people, I can understand a little bit of Heidegger. I’m extremely lucky to be able to study at all, especially on such a well-run, exciting course like Modernities.
Things I miss about waitressing:
Being on my feet all day. Coming home feeling like an honest hard day’s work has been done, that I really earned that massive block of chocolate.
Gossip. Constant streams of salacious stories.
The visceral fuck-strewn quality of hospitality patter.
Unlimited access to coffee at the point of need.
Making strangers happy through simple acts of kindness.
Being with friends all day and plotting grand schemes.
Telling ghost stories to tourists.
Having a reason to put makeup on in the morning/having a reason to get up in the morning before 10.
That amazing post-coffee rush feeling when you know your break is due and you’ve got a good book on you.
Finishing a shift and leaving it at the door for a Netflix binge.
Meeting new people more or less constantly.
Having actual muscles from plate carrying.
Playing the game of concocting life stories for strangers.
Teamwork! (which is sorely missed on an English Lit degree…)
Solving completely unsolvable problems, like trying to find and polish 50 champagne flutes in five minutes, or sourcing pathologically evasive salt shakers, or convincing the kitchen not to slaughter you because your table’s arrived 45 minutes late, just in time to clash with every other function in the building.
Unexpectedly deep conversations about love, life, literature, music, family, mental illness, travel, astrophysics, the ethics of illustration, Tumblr, queer theory, feminism, television, childhood memories and sleep deprivation all while polishing cutlery.
The thrill of days off.
Going part-time, I still get some of these fun things, and less of the bad things. Maybe that’s a nice balance. The Christmas period is always a test for our sanity and endurance. Still, hopefully the feeling of handing in my essays will get me through the rest of the season, and if not god knows I have enough books to read to escape into! Maybe I should tidy my room first.
Dark Ecology and Haunted Technology in Stranger Things
(warning: this essay lacks coherence; think of it more as a wandering, a haunting of deranged, half-baked ideas)
In our time, the soul has been progressively more materialised. That the soul should now be thought to be, no longer purely immaterial, but constituted from a range of different forms of exotic or tenuous matter is a proof of the necessity of physics for any metaphysics
(Steven Connor, ‘Her Light Materials’).
In her book Phantasmagoria, Marina Warner explores the way in which, from the seventeenth century onwards, we have increasingly relied upon various forms of matter in order to discursively figure the soul: visual apparatuses, natural elements, shadows, reflections, wax and technology are just some of the material modes by which the soul is embodied in the ‘modern’ era. This emphasis on things and substances as they bear forth not only selfhood but also the spiritual manifestation of self is crucial to an ecological understanding of humanity’s vision of itself in a post-industrial age where such substances, through our own actions, have contaminated the earth: the Anthropocene means that our physical activities as humans are literally embedded, embodied and sedimented into the Earth’s geology, ecosystems, climate. In a sense, the human soul, its debris of thingness – whether vaporous or material – is already encrusted within what we can now only tenuously call the environment. For doesn’t an environment presuppose a foreground and background, a subject who inhabits the object(ive) world? What happens when we are the object world? How do we confront the sudden otherness of ourselves, the realisation that we are the earth, and not in some hippie-dippie holism (let’s all hold hands with the animals) but in a frighteningly confrontational reality of material coexistence?
What is striking about Netflix’s Stranger Things is exactly its emphasis on strange things. The suffix draws attention to what we mean by things: who or what are we comparing the stranger things to? Ourselves? The creatures we coexist with, the ones we have already charted, taxonomised, ordered and made familiar through Enlightenment science, zoology and philosophy? How many horror films have we seen where that which is monstrous is not other to us but somehow represents the other within us? As Virginia Woolf said of Henry James’ ghosts: ‘They have their origin within us. They are present whenever the significant overflows our powers of expressing it; whenever the ordinary appears ringed with the strange’ (1921). When what we take as given, as natural or normal–is revealed as inherently disturbed–the boundaries of meaning violently ruptured or haunted, there incurs a fundamental split in what we take to be reality itself. We are forced to question our place in the ‘world’ not just as a human but as a physical subject tout court.
The horror genre is notorious for its representation of creatures who challenge our definition of the natural. Timothy Morton says of John Carpenter’s film The Thing: ‘the supposedly horrific alien is none other than the reproductive, simulative process of nature itself’; the Thing is always shifting its guises, ‘destined never to be itself’ (182). This is the dark allure of the popular horror trope of the viral: that which is always shifting, transforming, responding ‘automatically’ (as in Darwinian) to the conditions of its environment. Think of zombie movies, then also the likes of 28 Days Later, I Am Legend and so on—all are obsessed with the idea of infection, the notion that apocalypse will come because the purity of the human soul and body will be corrupted by some alien force.
However, what terrifies about the virus is the realisation that it is inherent in ‘nature’; as Morton argues, what is ‘monstrous’ about evolution, about the growth of plants and other lifeforms, is that DNA itself is viral: [a]ll organisms are monsters insofar as they are chimeras, made from pieces of other creatures’ (2010: 66). Like Victor Frankenstein’s Creature in Mary Shelley’s novel, all lifeforms are hybridised, made from scraps of other beings; though here the product not of Frankenstein’s experiments in vitalism but of evolution’s functional contamination. As with Derrida’s revelation that language, meaning and being have no presence, but only Différance, Darwin’s theory of evolution, as Morton shows, is similarly predicated on slipperiness, fuzziness, contamination. At the core of existence is not essence, but différance, with all its implications of instability, aporia and fragile, mutually infected binaries. Mutation, in a strong sense, is inherent to ‘nature’ – and by no means are humans excluded from this ‘nature’. Not only do we enmesh with the object world in a corporeal sense (our bodies are not bounded but always escape, fragment – the dust of our skin and hair inhabits the atmosphere) but also in the discursive sense, in the way that Warner has traced: in the literary and aesthetic figuring of the soul as a material thing.
Episode Four of Stranger Things is appropriately named ‘The Body’. Looking down at the corpse of her missing child (Will), Joyce (played by that chimera of the Gothic heroine, Winona Ryder) screams, ‘I don’t know what you think that thing in there is, but that is not my son’. What she feels is not grief, but something ‘different’: she is rubbing up against the fragile boundaries of the symbolic order, feeling the metaphysical structures of the world quiver uncannily around her. Later in the episode, we see her other son, Jonathan, weeping in his room to Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’. The lyrics enact an uncanny duality of dialogue: the imperative to ‘walk in silence’ is retracted immediately with ‘don’t walk away, in silence’: the whole song, with its slow, shimmering synths and shuddering drums enacts a play between presence and absence, the corporeal and incorporeal: ‘Naked to see / Walking on air / Hunting by the rivers’. Like The Cure’s ‘A Forest’, there is a maddening sense of pursuit, the lost object dissolving into silence while the mournful subject can only wander through the song in his melancholia, pursuing ‘through the streets’ but only to abandon ‘every corner […] too soon’. There is no closure, only this ‘atmosphere’ of absence sprinkled with the ghostly possibilities of presence elusive.
With Will’s ersatz body we confront the indeterminate state between life and death, the physical remains which should suggest closure and yet speak of something silent, unsayable. What is this strange body cast up before her? Surely not the son, who she is sure is not dead yet, who she has heard calling for her through the telephone…Later, when Hopper, the police chief, takes a knife to the chest of the corpse, he sees it to be synthetic, stuffed like a pillow. Matter contained in matter; this time, not human matter, but simple object matter. We are suddenly pointed to a deeper conspiracy (the Department of Energy and the MK Ultra experiments), but at the same time the suspense of Hopper’s puncturing is playing upon our abject reaction to the corpse as that which contains within it both life and death. What disgusts us in the carving of cadavers is the fact that it is even possible; the tear of the body representing the tear of all we have taken for granted in our usual embodied lives as similar beings, wrapped up in what we thought was the same fabric of reality.
What is uncanny about a human corpse? It reminds us of the presence of death within everyday existence, it shows us, in visceral, stinking, mattering manner, ‘what I permanently thrust aside in order to live’ – it is ‘death infecting life’ (Kristeva 1982: 3). Stranger Things is obsessed with appearance and reality, with the hidden networks of existence which haunt the outward façade of daily life in small-town Indiana. As the title suggests, part of this interplay of appearance and reality is the necessary strangeness of things: not just the gory, pulp-horror monsters that haunt our nightmares but the strangeness of all we take for granted as normal—the family home, the general ‘good’ of the government’s intentions and the rule of the law; the clear boundary between life and death, presence and absence, self and other. We might think of Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet (1986), bending down in the lush green grass of a suburban garden to lift that grotesque, insect-swarmed severed ear from the ground: the sudden onrush of magnified sound that signals our entrance into the underworld, the seedy, violent and parallel reality which exists aside our everyday lives. This essay will attempt an exploration of sorts into Stranger Thing’s heart of darkness: its uncanny depiction of the interrelations between bodies, technologies and nature, the living and the dead.
My central focus will concern how ethereal, inter-worldly transmission is figured through technology and also how its representation of abjection and the viscous, sticky enmeshment of the Upside-Down contributes to a renewed understanding of what constitutessuch taken-for-granted things as nature, environment, world. I will argue that the show’s obsession with death as an ontological condition and its depiction of both communication and rupture is not just a parable of Cold War paranoia over the presence of the (Communist) Other within, but also challenges the ethics and poetics of how we approach the non-human Other in the context of late capitalism, i.e. ecological crisis and technological modernity.
One of the most terrifying aspects of the Monster/Creature/Demogorgon is its lack of a face; the fact that it cannot return the gaze of its onlookers, who can only look into the void of its flesh and see substance, reminding them that they too are substance—that the boundary between the human and monstrous is decidedly fragile. The Dementors in Harry Potter are similarly frightening because they lack eyes: where the eyes should be, the sockets are covered over with scabby, corpse-like skin. In Neil Gaiman’s children’s novella, Coraline, in the parallel, looking-glass world that Coraline finds ‘through the door’, her Other Mother and Other Father seem physically identical to their originals, except that their eyes have been replaced with black buttons. Freud famously outlined his theory of the uncanny through a close reading of E. T. A. Hoffman’s ‘The Sandman’ (1816), a dark Germanic fable about a creature who visits children and tears out their eyes. Freud very cleverly links the fear of blindness back to castration anxiety, but for my purposes, the uncanniness of losing one’s sight is partly due to perception itself. If our eyes are associated with discerning the real world of impressions around us, how can we without them tell if we are living in reality?
Moreover, when we encounter creatures without eyes, what are we to make of their consciousness? If eyes are ‘windows to the soul’ as the saying goes, can there be a soul without eyes? Coexistence can happen on an intelligible level if the animal can return our gaze: Derrida, in ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, has written about his experience of being looked at and looking back at the animal, namely, his cat staring in confusion at his naked body; and we have all had a moment of silent exchange with a stranger’s pet, eyes meeting by chance perhaps but lingering…and in that lingering is the suggestion of an understanding between species, the troubling of notions of inside/outside, human/nonhuman.
Yet how do we interact with a creature who cannot return the gaze? A thing without facial features is ontologically unstable somehow, unable to establish presence through meaningful expression: ‘the phantasm is the sign of that visible incorporeality. The image I see returns as both the spectral figure of myself as other, and yet also it figures in its return the immanence of my disappearance’ (Dick and Wolfreys 2015: 139). Could we relate this ‘visible incorporeality’ to the Creature of Stranger Things? It is certainly figured as corporeal, as Nancy and Jonathan embark on a hunting mission to slay it like any old dragon or wildebeest, but then again, it is not of our world – it comes from the other place, the Upside-Down. Seeing the Creature, the characters are faced with its impossibility, which in turn incurs an ontological rupture whereby they themselves witness the flashing vanishing of matter. Barb’s sudden disappearance, for instance: the play of sensory impressions that distorts all sense of space and time in the woods.
Significantly, the Creature is not the only ‘monster’ that haunts Stranger Things. Throughout the show, El is in a sense a ‘monstrous’ figure. Her origins are unknown. Stripped of hair, with a boyish figure, she maintains an androgynous appearance; the boys’ attempts to prettify her with a wig and makeup enact a bizarre transformation which only serves to heighten her strangeness, as she appears more doll-like, the sudden deliberation of her actions running uncannily counter to her appearance, which would be that of an automaton if she were a living doll (or indeed, the escaped hospital patient possibility suggested by her bald scalp and hospital gown). Her fate, like Safie in Frankenstein (who provides a parallel figure of exile for the Creature, welcomed with hospitality while he is crudely expelled from the De Lacey home) seems inextricably tied up with that of the Creature: in the final episode, its vanishing at the command of her telekinesis simultaneously enacts her own vanishing from the concrete world of the boys and the classroom. It might’ve been interesting to make the Creature a more sympathetic life form, rather than a screaming reaction of base violence which actively preys on humans, just to give some extra ambiguity to the order of things; but even so, it’s still possible to have some sympathy for the Demogorgon (and not just because it seems the live manifestation of a beloved strategy game)—after all, it represents ‘nature’ in all its savage instincts, linking back to what I was saying earlier about monstrosity and evolution.
In order to defeat the Creature, to seek out Will in the Upside-Down, El has to recreate the sensory deprivation experiments which were conducted upon her in the Department of Energy lab. Floating in the water, she appears Christ-like, as if her soul must endure the rituals of crucifixion in order to bring back Will from the Upside-Down (symbolic immersion?). Like Nancy, she is deathly thin, her physical presence pale against the strong personalities of the male characters. Her corporeal existence is almost shimmering: she is slow at first, learning words and meanings, piecing things together. Not only does this emphasise the shock of her telekinetic powers, but also it sediments the show’s strange interplay between the ethereal and material.
Stranger Thing’s preoccupation with eating is one manifestation of this. It’s all very Freudian. Jonathan makes eggs for his mother and tries to get her to eat. Arguments occur round the family dinner table. In the Upside-Down, Nancy sees the Creature feeding on a deer and realises its attraction to spilt blood. The cadaverous El is always ravenous and is frequently seen eating. In fact, at one point she blithely steals frozen waffles from a supermarket and devours them in the woods. Food is a prominent symbol in fairytales. Food, of course, is closely related to abjection. Fundamentally, the digestion and excretion of food reminds us that we are part of an enmeshment of material things; unfortunately, we cannot transcend the flesh prison which sustains our beautiful souls…Kristeva’s description of the abject reaction of food disgust is worth quoting in full, as her sentences gather a certain pace that mimics the physical spasms of reaction, the desire to expel the self in the experience of disgust from the food object which reminds us that we too are bodies, layered and soft and mortal:
Food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection. When the eyes see or the lips touch that skin on the surface of milk—harmless, thin as a sheet of cigarette paper, pitiful as a nail paring—I experience a gagging sensation and, still farther down, spasms in the stomach, the belly; and all the organs shrivel up the body, provoke tears and bile, increase heartbeat, cause forehead and hands to perspire. Along with sight-clouding dizziness, nausea makes me balk at that milk cream, separates me from the mother and father who proffer it. “I” want none of that element, sign of their desire; “I” do not want to listen, “I” do not assimilate it, “I” expel it. But since the food is not an “other” for “me,” who am only in their desire, I expel myself. I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which “I” claim to establish myself. That detail, perhaps an insignificant one, but one that they ferret out, emphasise, evaluate, that trifle turns me inside out, guts sprawling; it is thus that they see that “I” am in the process of becoming an other at the expense of my own death. During that course in which “I” become, I give birth to myself amid the violence of sobs, of vomit.
(Kristeva 1982: 2-3)
The inside-out unsheathing of the body and its skin (the skin of flesh, the flesh of food) mirrors the Upside-Down Alice in Wonderland reversal and parallel convergence of realities. There is always a reversal, another possible surface. The mutation. Nothing is stable but always in movement. The spasms here mirror the shrieking of the self in the grip of grief: in Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer’s mother shrieking in hysteria; in Stranger Things, Joyce Byers rattling with terror as she storms around her own home, trying to find her lost son. The psychosexual implications of Kristeva’s passage are also relevant to Stranger Things because, let’s face it, there is something womblike and vaginal about the viscous, flora-infested environment of the Upside-Down, its gross and mollusc-like mucus and glistening ectoplasm. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Nancy loses her virginity the same night that her best friend Barb is sucked into that orifice-like portal of the monstrous feminine, the gooey nether-zone where she will find herself woven into the lining, her body penetrated by the infestations of disgusting slug and snake-like creatures. Like Cinderella, Barb pricks her finger (though on a crunched beer can, not a spindle) and is doomed to some sort of eternal sleep.
At one point in the show, one of the lab workers enters the portal in the Department of Energy and despite clinging to a rope, is irrevocably drawn into the depths, never to see the light of day again as the mouth of the portal closes. There’s the whole vagina dentata (religious myth of the toothed vagina) psychoanalytic strand here which would be interesting to pursue, especially as the implications of castration anxiety connect back to the Creature’s missing eyes/face. As in Twin Peaks, the portal to the other world (Black Lodge) will only open under certain conditions. With Kristeva’s passage on the skin of milk, we can think about how the entrance to the Upside-Down is itself an instance of abjection: the expelling of bodies and matter between worlds. The inside is clearly toxic as the lab workers don protective suits to enter; there is even a suggestion of the post-nuclear landscape in the way that an ash-like matter floats in the atmosphere, again fitting in with the monstrous nature/alien space theme.
As Nancy tumbles out from the forest portal (housed inside a tree), sticky with all the weird stuff that comes off the world’s ‘lining’, she is quivering with terror in a manner reminiscent of Kristeva in the rejection of the milk. Freud theorised that young boys were scared of their mothers due to the fear she would castrate them, and maybe there’s a reading that the whole show is some phantasmagoric, dreamlike manifestation of the terror of the overbearing ‘hysteric’ mother (Joyce). The winding strands of plant-like matter, snake-like and strange, are reminiscent too of Medusa’s head. Freud has a whole essay, ‘Medusa’s Head’ (1922), on the possibility/implications of Medusa’s head taking ‘the place of a representation of female genitals, or rather if it isolates their horrifying effects from their pleasure-giving ones is familiar in other connections as an apotropaic act’—namely, the commitment of evil. Interesting how Stranger Things teases with the gendering here: the male-dominated U.S. Government vs. monstrous feminine nature – which is more evil? Science or the (super)natural? I think the Alien films are probably the most obvious Stranger Things intertext here, but the very fact that the show wears its myriad influences on its sleeve creates a web-like structure of inference that opens itself up to multiple readings that cut across the cultural timelines of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, spreading out monstrously, contaminating discourses both pop cultural and scientific.
The show plays constantly with this weirdly distorted womb/plant/viscous/genitals imagery and I can’t help but think perhaps it represents some kind of monstrous mother nature, the vengeance of the earth against the interfering experiments with time-space enacted by the US Government and its Department of Energy…Hyperobjects like global warming, plutonium and oil slicks are defined partly by their viscosity: ‘the more you know about a hyperobject, the more entangled with it you realise you already are’ (Morton 2010a). The more we as viewers learn about the strange world of the Upside-Down, the more we see it in our own reality. Monstrous, oozing nature. Ourselves in the mirror: the strange stranger – the notion that the closer we get to other life forms, the weirder they become (Morton 2010b: 17).The constant recurrence of floods and hurricanes and melting ice caps, irrevocably now understood as the consequences of global warming: they acquire an almost anthropomorphised monstrosity.
At the end of the series, Will, restored to apparent ‘reality’ (signified by that most traditional of temporal markers, perhaps the most important date in the calendar, Christmas Day), coughs up a slug-like creature and once again glimpses the Upside-Down again, flashing through the palimpsest surface of the normal world, reminding us of the imprint of the ecological uncanny, the presence of the strange, nonhuman other, within ourselves. I am struck with a line from Coleridge’s poem, ‘The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere’ (1798), where, after facing the nightmare wrath of the storms following his shooting of the albatross (the fatal crime against ‘nature’), the mariner glimpses the gross multitudes of sea-snakes in the ocean below his boat, shimmering among the floating corpses of his fellow sailors, lost to the storm: ‘And they all dead did lie! / And a million million slimy things / Liv’d on – and so did I’. The mushy consonance of the l sounds here recreates the oozing viscosity of all those wriggling bodies, but there is a sense in which the mariner seems to revel in the sheer multitude of these ‘million million slimy things’, as the repetition suggests—their individuality as types of species is beyond his grasp and he can only face them as a kind of hyperobject, the sharp realisation following the caesura (-) indicating the revelation of coexistence, which is both wondrous and terrifying.
Indeed, there’s something about El’s telekinetic powers too, the way they can elasticate reality, bending objects and shattering matter, but at the expense of something inside her, the price of the blood that oozes from her nose each time, signifying her depleted energy. She is no robot, but material and mortal too: the recurrence of the blood and its spilling viscosity insists on this. El’s ‘magic’ enacts a disruption of foreground and background; we cannot just perceive it as magic, for we have witnessed its basis in a kind of scientific experiment within the labs. It comes out of the world, disrupts the subject. Stranger Things is rife with pathetic fallacy – storms and power blackouts – and this isn’t just a contribution to the horror mood but also an underlining of the show’s ecological context and monstrosity: the collapse of weather as mere background, stage-setting, into the narrative itself (the significance of electricity in the show is still to be traced) signals the impossibility of the world as such. ‘We have no world,’ as Morton so aptly puts it, ‘because the objects that functioned as invisible scenery have dissolved’ (2013: 104). What happens when you think through the world as the world, rather than from an anthropocentric viewpoint? Peter Watts has written a short story titled ‘The Things’ which reverses the perspective of Carpenter’s movie, this time telling the story from the virus’ point of view (note the plural things and think back to the mutational plurality/chains of the virus)—once again, disruption of subject/object ordering. What is an alien consciousness? What is nature’s consciousness? The only way we can find out is by recognising nature’s strangeness, and that strangeness is inherently within us too. In Stranger Things, the dissolution of objects is part of the show’s exploration of the uncanny (walls and doors shift, ooze, open and close) in relation to the monstrous (and this is rooted in other themes beyond the scope of my essay; for example, the nuclear family and adolescent sexuality), but also the monstrosity of nature enacting its gross and terrible vengeance against man’s interference: El, little pixie child of the forest as she becomes, is able to manipulate objects, thus denying their status as mere staging and indeed staging them as vitalist forces in themselves (so far, so Object Orientated Ontology?).
On the subject of ‘energy’ and electricity it isn’t just El’s psychic energy and the deceptive title of the ‘Department of Energy’ that resonates in Stranger Things. ‘Energy’ also points us to the vitalist elements of Stranger Things; namely, its interest in the networked relations between humans and technology, the way that communication and transmission rupture not only the fleshly interaction of humans but also the metaphysical boundaries between life and death. For starters, there’s the song played against the opening title: New Order’s ‘Elegia’. What first struck me about this track was the dissonant synths, the way they creep up on you in mesmerising waltz-time, the guitars, piano and synths enveloping one another in counterpoint melodies. NME tells me that the song was written as a tribute to Ian Curtis and it’s almost impossible to listen to the 18-minute track, whose elegiac status is inscribed in the very title, and not think of absence, death, the plunge into void, the journey through its swirling, miasma-like movements which render eerie and maybe even ‘inhuman’ our experience of temporality. Before this contextual note, however, I was weirdly reminded of ‘Lavender Town Syndrome’: the 1990s internet myth surrounding the music from Pokemon Red and Green. The MIDI track from this particular town is indeed extremely jarring, run on two channels so that the sound travels literally through one ear and out of the other and thus fusing in the brain to create a certain sonic effect. There were rumours that this effect caused suicides and seizures until the MIDI track was ‘tamed’ for the American version.
While the story was more or less sheer internet rumour, it’s still provocative and raises questions about the ghostliness (or, as Warner might put it, phantasmagoria) provoked by the phantasmic structures of media technology. Aphex Twin, for example, embedding a spectrograph image inside an audio file, the implications of such a shape upon sound: screeching, searing static. The sound of a ghost trapped in a glitch world? If the glitch is an accident, then what is a ghost? An accident of time and space, trapped in the in-between, reminding us of the fragility of time-space itself? Of being itself? Sound, after all, is temporal; a MIDI track is self-containing in its temporality. You can loop it, but it has a form and a shape, a beginning and ending. Does the ghost have a beginning and ending? When I listen to the original Lavender Town track, I can definitely feel a kind of fuzziness or vibration in my brain, as if the frequencies of my thought were suddenly being played upon, synapses twisted and twanged as if in electro-convulsive therapy; or like the sensory experiments upon the brain portrayed in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and indeed in Stranger Things, inspired by the psychedelic investigations of the 1960s and 70s, name-checked in the show as ‘MK Ultra’ – incidentally, also the title of one of Muse’s most politically paranoid songs. An early configuration of this could be the Romantic Aeolian harp, which represented the mutual ‘play’ of sound, expression, music, poetry and impressions between the world and the artistic mind (see Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’). What these aural effects again reinforce is the dissolving of subject/object, as sounds from the so-called ‘environment’ feed into our brains, penetrate the boundaries of the self and flesh and in doing so enact a kind of digital Heideggarian poeisis, wherein the arrangement of sound itself (like words on the page of a poem), causes something to actually happen, to come into being. What is this being? The experience of terror, a sudden rupture of consciousness as the soundwaves pulse through the brain? Sensation, in its flux, placing us under erasure, as we fall away from consciousness? Where are we now, reaching back for the material symbols of the soul that would save us from the sea of dissonant, consuming music? Stranger Things evokes a rich sonic atmosphere, full of grotesque, squelchy, pulsing, oozing, insect-esque sound effects which trickle the presence of monstrous nature, of the metaphysical strangeness of the Upside-Down and its plant-like materials, straight into our brain.
Attached to the auditory is the technological unfolding of the visual. Throughout the series,photography plays a significant role in the identification of the beast/creature. Following the scopophilic power of the male gaze (and of course another Blue Velvet reference is inevitable here, Jeffrey peeking through the closet at the acts of domestic sexual violence), Jonathan sneaks into the woods to take photos of Steve’s party, snapping pictures of Nancy for whom he harbours a secret desire/teenage love. Yet what remains in the photos isn’t just the form of his beloved, but the strange shape of the beast, captured indelibly in the developed ink:
Photography is a mode of tekhnē– a making appear (technology “makes” something “appear” out of parts, raw materials; it is thus the truth of the physical world; we make, we cause to appear things, commodities, but what does photography make appear? Images made of shadows, light and dark – in this it causes to appear an event no longer there, no longer with us; it gives us to see what we cannot otherwise see.
(Dick and Wolfreys 260)
There is a sense in which photography is, like the New Order track, inherently elegiac—or at the very least, represents the flicker between presence and absence, since the material presence of the photograph is haunted by the absence of what it represents, the not-there, the once-happened. As in the play of light and dark, positive and negative space, the photograph captures the liminal position between presence and absence, matter and ethereality. It is thus, as Barthes shows in Camera Lucida ( 1980), a medium closely associated with death. The shape of the beast is barely distinguishable in the photograph, especially with the added layer of another camera, and the computer screen through which we stream the Netflix content of Stranger Things itself. The temporality of the photograph is thus strangely ephemeral, despite its suggestion of a ‘snapshot’, a reification or fixing of the moment. There is a ghostliness to the photo: ‘it bears witness where there is no witness’ (Dick and Wolfreys 2015: 261); it reduplicates the sense of presence as reading the image bears another kind of birth, the control of the eye/I at the focal point in another space of time which is always overtaken by the image and its embodiment of another time–the displacing and shifting incurring is a kind of haunting.
Think of Twin Peaks, another series whose entire plot hinges on absence, namely, the death of its main character, Laura Palmer, which occurs before the show’s diegetic action even begins. Laura’s absence is primarily signified by the presence of her prom queen portrait photograph, which occupies not only the mantelpiece of the Palmer home but also the end credits of every episode. Played over with the melancholy Angelo Badalamenti score, the picture serves to remind us of the presence of Laura as narrative phantasm, the way that the absent/dead Cathy and Heathcliff haunt Nelly’s recollected narrative in Wuthering Heights.
Ghosts, then, are not just the creaky ghouls of Gothic castles, but instead are inextricably linked to the replicating capacities of technology and indeed narrative itself as a medium of recalling some thing or person or event, thereby disruptively evoking the past in the present, disturbing presence itself. As Derrida puts it:
Contrary to what we might believe, the experience of ghosts is not tied to a bygone historical period, like the landscape of Scottish manors, etc., but … is accentuated, accelerated by modern technologies like film, television, the telephone. These technologies inhabit, as it were, a phantom structure…When the very first perception of an image is linked to a structure of reproduction, then we are dealing with the realm of phantoms.
(Derrida 1989: 61)
In addition to photography, electricity and telephone communication are prominent mediums through which the ghostly is figured in Stranger Things. Joyce starts to hear Will calling to her through electricity—through the lamps and electric lights strung up in her home. She answers the telephone and hears his voice through the ambient rasping, and we can hear glimpses of that gooey, squelching monster sound. She literally rips the telephone out the wall trying to get back to him, causing another spatial rupture in the material world which started with the ephemeral, the sound of the phone call. Her makeshift séance codex constructed out of letter posters and the flashing bulbs of fairy lights renders literally the evocation of the dead through writing, the Derridean play of presence and absence which dissolves subjectivity in the space between speech and writing. Here Will can only communicate by flashing the lights, so that his presence is available only through the transmission of a kind of Morse code. At the end of episode two, as Joyce tries to navigate the suddenly terrifying environment of her home, seeking the source of the noise and of Will’s possible voice, the soundtrack, heard by us and by Joyce through the walls, is the Clash’s ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ – a song which ironically renders the subject’s lingering on the threshold between going and staying, presence and absence. Joyce’s discovery of the song playing on the stereo as if by magic is uncanny because the familiar song becomes wrenched from its normal experience and is here recontextualised as extremely disturbing and perhaps even tragic, the flicker and stutter of its playback following the jilted rhythms of a voice, a soul, a subject, trying to pierce through some unseen border, to transmit signals to his mother.
At one point, Joyce gets so far as to catch a glimpse of her son through the wall which becomes a glass screen, but soon he vanishes, the wall returns to being a wall that is now smashed and the daylight is beaming through, reminder of the permeability of all borders, the fragile boundaries of the home. When the estranged husband, father of Will, comes to visit, he makes attempts to patch up the physical confines of the home, but this patriarchal intrusion of order and reparation of stability does little to stabilise the spirits of the house: the invasive Creature, which howls in the wall, and Will, who calls through the lights.
What we get is a sense of Joyce’s claustrophobic mania, her absolute loneliness as she desperately tries to seek out signs of her son’s presence. Jonathan makes attempts to help her, to make her breakfast and be strong for her, but he too prefers to retire to his room and listen to his new wave melancholia, eyes transfixed on the constant whorl of the tape spools. As Joyce fashions a codex for communication, I think back to the idea of writing itself as a kind of call. In writing, the self dissolves, is irrevocably split (so far, so Lacan), but the same is true of speech:
[…] we come to apprehend a ghostly structure at work, which informs the condition of being human, and with that all forms, instances, possibilities of communication between the self and the other, the host and the guest or ghost, the living and the dead. Even if no one has said anything to me, when I begin to write, or when I start talking – to give a lecture, or in a seminar – what I call “my” words, arrive as a response to some unheard, but nonetheless persistent call […]
(Dick and Wolfreys 2015: 28).
There is, then, an uncanny disruption of subjectivity within the voice itself, a spacing of difference and deferral. Whose words am I speaking? In the experience of hearing Will’s voice, we undergo the creepy realisation of his presence penetrating the possibilities of time/space (how can you speak from the realm of the dead?) at the same time of the technological reproduction of his voice adding another layer of ‘removal’, of phantasmagoric embodiment to Will’s ‘self’ or indeed ‘soul’.
I would argue that the show’s real obsession is not with Cold War governmental conspiracy, but with transmission and networks. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on how Tom McCarthy’s novel C (2010) approaches the discourse networks of twenty-first century internet and wireless technology by representing the wireless networks of the early twentieth century’s radio communication, in doing so carving out a media archaeological approach to literature and theory that renders the always-already status of subjectivity and human communication as a form of transmission, indelibly connected to texts and technics. McCarthy’s protagonist, Serge, tunes into the radio frequently, but even as he listens to a gramophone, the unravelling distortions of his dead sister’s voice tune into his brain through a psychoanalytic panoply of incest, desire and technological anamnesis:
The cylinders and discs are still there. When he plays them now, her voice attaches itself, leech-like, to the ones recorded in them – tacitly, as though laid down in the wax and shellac underneath these voices, on a lower stratum: it flashes invisibly within these crackles, slithers through the hisses of their silence.
(McCarthy 2010: 78)
Here the material paraphernalia of the gramophone has the effect of a medium in the telekinetic sense of communing with the dead; only Serge never speaks back, he only listens. The leech-like imagery conjured here, with the slithery plurality of voices, the intrusion of external sounds (‘these crackles’) recalls the slimy imagery of Coleridge’s water-snakes and indeed the Upside-Down: these are parts of ‘the world’ of matter that cannot be elided, that flicker in the strange temporal space which technologically carves out (in its ‘archaeological’ and reproductive function) between life and death. Sophie, the dead sister, returns as material detritus, reminding us again of our enmeshment (here physical embedding) within the material world. As the ‘wax and shellac’ score ‘these voices’, Warner’s figuring of the phantasmagoria of the soul appears again: the soul is here literally materialised, but only as recollected fragments. This is an ecological point in the sense that it underscores our dependence on the matter of technics as an entry point into being, since memory is crucial for our sense of selfhood, its recollection the temporal play that brings a sense of presence—of duration and continuity, though predicated on movement and the spacing of image and sound, the material, sensory forms taken by memory. There is something in this inherently connecting the child and the technological machine. Perhaps it is because children are closely associated with futurity, and their death (living on only in memory fragments) uncannily disrupts our sense of the linear ‘order’ of things. Perhaps also because of the history of the technical media itself:
As the literary critic Laurence Rickels points out, the technical media first create these children – “create” in the sense of constituting them as modern subjects by inscribing them across their wax- and nitrate-plated surfaces, framing them within their boxed walls – then, once the children are dead, provide the mausoleums they inhabit. “Every point of contact between a body and its media extension,” he goes on to argue, “marks the site of some secret burial.
(McCarthy, Tom 2012)
Will’s friends try to reach out to him by playing with the Ham radio at school, eventually getting through to him from the Upside-Down and in the process exploding the equipment. Is this burst of flames the violent rupture of the Real, another signal that the boundaries of the symbolic and indeed metaphysical order are being ruptured? The revenge of physics against a narrative of possible mysticism? When El encounters the spooky Russian man upon one of her sensory deprivation trips, he is muttering random words which sound like a radio transmission. El herself is a transmitter. She is the explosive node in the network which opened up the gateway between the ‘real world’ and the Upside-Down. In a kind of re-imagining of Donnie Darko, the boys question their science teacher on the multiple worlds theorem, and I have tried to read up on the physics and relativity theory but my poor wee humanities brain can’t quite hold it all together. Still, the idea of multiple worlds implies being as becoming. There cannot be stable presence, singular origin of selfhood, when multiple possibilities can coexist…I think of the protagonist of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) tearing at the grotesque yellow wallpaper as if seeking for the opening, the wound in the fabric of reality, which would let out that terrible voice, the face that she sees in the multiplicities of arabesques, which perhaps are not that unlike the floral arabesques of the green, ivy-like winds of the Upside-Down’s ‘lining’, hungry as fly-eating succulents in the greenhouse of Hell…
There are times when the absent/spirit/representational world ruptures into reality. This is the terror of Lavender Town Syndrome. Pokémon Go literally makes a game out of it, by placing Pokémon to be caught within the cartographies of ‘real’ space. We are obsessed with this slippage of the real and the illusory as palimpsests, where sometimes elements of each world slip through to the next. Slender Man, which grew out of an internet myth, the placing of a ghostly trace figure within digitally-manipulated photographs, flowered as if by evolutionary monstrosity into an elaborate urban legend. Breaking the fourth wall, two 12-year-old girls from Wisconsin have been charged with first-degree attempted homicide for trying to stab their friend to death, citing the demands of Slender Man as the cause of their actions. The blur between fiction and fact stares us straight in the face of this real-world ‘tragedy’. Was Slender Man ‘real’ if the girls truly believed in him and acted on accord of his illusory voice? What are the ethical implications of this infiltration of myth narrative within our phenomenological experience of the world? Often, we see the characters seeing the Creature more than we see the Creature (for example, when Barb is attacked at the poolside), and could this relational depiction of terror be a way of drawing us in further to a shared ontological understanding of the pervasiveness of the monstrous, rather than merely a cheap horror movie trick aimed at suspense? Isn’t suspense itself a disruptive force, holding hostage the linear ideology of progress in favour of the rhythm of the ‘shock’ which loops back into the past and halts the present?
In his book Haunted Media, Jeffrey Sconce eloquently explores how television came to be figured as uncanny, as the interconnecting medium between multiple worlds. The medium itself seemed to embody a hauntological structure, with the appearance of television ‘ghosts’, whereby wispy doubles of the actual figures onscreen cast a spectral aura around their ‘real’ counterparts: ‘not so much as shadows, but as disembodied echoes seemingly from another plane or dimension’ (Sconce 124). The combination of sound and image thus proliferates the ghostly possibilities of reproduction. The BBC series’ Life on Mars and its sequel, Ashes to Ashes take this to its logical extreme by exploring television as a medium for transmission across time and space. The central characters wake up in a parallel reality where they have a similar job only they have gone back in time by several decades, forced to work on police cases which will have ramifications for the future and indeed cases whose origins are the source-code for events already experienced in the characters’ present-moment temporalities. A whole other essay is required for analysing the complex play between technology, ontological instability, nostalgia and memory here (as well as comparative police culture!); but I can briefly say that, as in McCarthy’s novel, the exploration of past technologies is often used as a way of commenting on the present.
Moreover, the figuring of technology’s ‘ether’ connects to the metaphysics of the series itself, as we gradually discover more of the mechanics of time and space within Life on Mars and even more so on Ashes to Ashes. At the start of each episode of Life on Mars comes the refrain: ‘My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident and woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever’s happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet.’ If the past seems like a ‘different planet’, then we are always-already inherently split: are our former selves and the lives we lead and have led fundamentally alien, as soon as they have happened? We gradually discover that the world inhabited by the ‘past’ characters (as opposed to the twenty-first century present) is a limbo of sorts, and this is revealed as characters start to glimpse aporetic fragments of starry ‘space’ towards the end of Ashes to Ashes. Like Joyce piercing through some dimension in her ripping holes in the wall, these characters uncover the stage-setting of the world around them. Space is figured as space in the physical sense (galaxies of matter) but also in the textual sense of rupture, pause, gaps in representation. No system is bounded or closed. There is a sense of the lost future, that which was snatched away from the dead, though lies still in its imminence. An elegiac sense of the stars, as often we perceive the dead as stars (which are themselves dead suns, and once again that idea of the flickering of light/shadow, presence/absence…). But also, the star spaces as portal/threshold, reminding us of the tangible and perhaps even elastic physical and ethereal spaces. What is it that calls us to open the door, to step forth? Upon what authority? Is it the voice within the self, irrevocably spilt as uncannily other? How does El vanish through the blackboard, along with the Creature? We are drawn to the liminal as we are drawn to the abject, precisely because there is a recognition of the enmeshment of things (Morton’s dark ecology) and the gaps in the web fascinate our sense of being as living species in relation to all other categories of being: the nonhuman, the (super)natural, the living and dead. In Life on Mars and indeed many other literary or dramatic representations of uncanny technology and its transmissions, these metaphysical hauntings are linked to the structural effects of television itself:
The introduction of electronic vision brought with it intriguing new ambiguities of space, time, and substance: the paradox of visible, seemingly material worlds trapped in a box in the living room and yet conjured out of nothing more than electricity and air. […] Unnervingly immediate and decidedly more tangible, the “electronic elsewhere” generated by television was thus more palpable and yet every bit as phantasmic the occult empires of previous media.’
(Jeffrey Sconce 2000: 126)
What is the effect of watching television in the perpetual present enabled by the internet? The browse-all, constantly-refreshed interface of Netflix? There is an added layer of immediacy which renders the nostalgic 1980s setting of shows like Ashes to Ashes (which isn’t on Netflix by the way, last time I checked) and Stranger Things even stranger, like we are reaching through a portal upon our return to their ontologically-distorted worlds. The representation of now-disused technologies as uncanny, their transmissions disturbing and problematic, prompts reflection on our contemporary digital condition. Elizabeth Bridges sums this up perfectly:
Stranger Things gets the fact that silence feels uncanny in 2016, that a lack of noise and flashing screens makes people anxious now, that it feels…. off, eerily desolate. The jolt of a ringing phone amidst a sea of silence seems jarring for us in a way that it would not have felt in 1983. Oddly normal moments in this series make us jump out of our skin.
Our present condition, the always-on, archiving-on-the-fly status of digital and portable media, renders the world of constantly disrupted communication even more strange. There is another level of disconnection, a rupture in the present, the shock of a telephone ringing. When was the last time your house phone went off when you were at home alone? The human voice recorded seems strangely anachronistic now, a product of lost time; I can’t recall the last time I made a voicemail message, or even listened to one. There’s something about the recorded voice, floating out there in the ether…the sound of the answer machine, the creepy litany, please hang up and try again, in crisply forgotten Queen’s English…
There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated.
(Kristeva 1982: 1)
Perhaps it is not the conspiracy theories or the paranoid Cold War plots or the violence that frighten us. Perhaps it is the mediums of transmission themselves, carrying wave upon wave of voices, disembodied, from different times and dimensions, bearing the abject realities which render the folds in the fabric of our being, the slippages between past/future, self/other, subject/object and life and death itself…Perhaps all technological recordings mark a death of sorts, a vital split between the transmitting subject and the transmitted object. That is the technological uncanny, and its violation of foreground and background is what draws us back into the enmeshment of a dark ecological awareness, the sense of the importance of things—the understanding that we too, as humans, are things.
Barthes, Roland, 1980. Camera Lucida (Hill and Wang).
Belle & Sebastian are one of those bands that give you a warm, fuzzy and nostalgic feeling. As much as they’re often lazily attributed to the cultural realm of the ‘indie kid’ or the ‘Glasgow hipster’, this neglects the fact of their wider popularity. They are, after all, a band who’ve been around for over 20 years now. I’ve played their tunes in the restaurant where I work and witnessed middle-aged folks who look like they’re off to a Springsteen concert humming along to ‘The Boy With the Arab Strap’. Their songs have popped up on plenty of popular tv shows and films (‘I Don’t Love Anyone’ on Girls, ‘I’m a Cuckoo’ on The Inbetweeners, ‘Piazza, New York Catcher’ in Juno – to name just a handful).Like a sweet, familiar honey, their music just sticks to you, whether you wanna spread it on your toast or not. Sure, they get a lot of hate: their songs are cloying, the singing a bit too saccharine at times, the lyrics silly, the sound the same on each album. I’ve heard them being called ‘beige’ music.
For me, Belle & Sebastian make pastel coloured music. I don’t know, maybe it’s a touch of the old synaesthesia but I’ve always imagined their songs awash in delicate shades of blue and pink, green and yellow and orange – a bit like the colours of sorbet. They’re just the perfect summer band. Some bands it’s easy to have a colour for, or even a texture: Mogwai are deep deep green and black, LCD Soundsystem are bright, shiny white, Mac DeMarco all denim blue and dirty mustard yellow, Kate Bush is a luscious kind of cherry red, Bjork is all the hues of a pearl, Tame Impala are psychedelic greens and blues and oranges, Aphex Twin is ink black, but sometimes yellow, blue or bubblegum pink. In the same vein, Belle & Sebastian to me are all about pastels, sometimes a wee bit brighter but never beige, except when it’s that classy kind of chino beige that you might see paired with a yellow blouse and pink ribbon. I want to be dressed up with a funny hat, a mini skirt and retro sunglasses when I listen to them. Something lilac, a stick of ice lolly. Hell, maybe even rollerblades. I find myself immersed in the stories of the songs; I sort of want to be a character in one of them – a lost twenty-something with her school days long behind her, figuring out how to deal with the world and enjoying living in the city.
Listening to them involves a kind of camaraderie: you’re sharing the world with them, with all the voices of each song’s narrator; sharing Stuart Murdoch’s hazy, romanticised version of Glasgow, the lives of the quirky characters he writes into his lyrics. The musical arrangements in their songs vary between stripped back and fragile, sometimes very much Smiths-influenced (inherently, B&S are an ‘urban’ band, right?), with pretty melodies adorned with piano, acoustic guitar, maybe a bit of bass (‘We Rule the School’, ‘It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career’, ‘Dress Up in You’ – these are some of my favourites), to zany and fun and maybe even lovably chaotic, with some of the earlier songs sporting surf rock guitars (‘La Pastie De La Bourgeoisie’) or (in the early days, Cubase-arranged) electronic numbers (‘Electronic Renaissance’, or, later on, the near seven minute ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’ which frames its tribute to the late great poet inside a Europop epic), as well as the Beatles-influenced ‘chamber pop’ (of which they share the influence mantle with Camera Obscura) – see, for example, The Life Pursuit. Their songs are often self-conscious, writing about the importance of losing yourself in books and songs (the final song of Tigermilk, ‘Mary Jo’, references the fictional book that titles the album’s first song: ‘You’re reading a book, “The State I Am In”’), referencing themselves, other ‘indie’ bands (Arab Strap being the most obvious), creating this whole dreamworld of literary and musical references which itself becomes the fantasy world of the songs. When you listen to them, it’s impossible not to lose yourself slightly to this pastel-saturated universe. It’s not just twee; it’s bittersweet happiness, nostalgia, personal and cultural reflection – they began making music in the 90s, after all. That’s why I smile when I see someone sporting a wee Belle & Sebastian tote bag or t-shirt: you know there’s someone else out there who shares that sweet and silly, slightly sad but hopeful little world.
In a way, they’re a band for the underdogs. They cut their teeth on the Glasgow open mic circuit, with its crowds veering between adoration or ruthless indifference. Every Saturday, under the guise of various band or solo arrangements, Stuart and his pals would appear in the Halt bar on Woodlands Road (sadly it no longer exists) – you can read all about it in bass/guitar player Stuart David’s memoir, In the All-Night Café, which geekily delves into early musical experiments, the songwriting process and all the crazy moments that brought the band together in their formative year. So yeah, it’s worth a read if you’re a B&S fan or even just a musician. It’s important to remember that the band produced and recorded all their early songs (came together, essentially) at Stow College’s now slightly legendary Beatbox course, which at the time was more or less a course that unemployed musicians in the area took to ensure they kept receiving the dole: ‘From what I could tell,’ Stuart writes of his first impression of the course, ‘[Beatbox] was a total shambles. Just scores of unemployed musicians sitting around in a dark, airless labyrinth, doing nothing. […] I wandered around on my own trying to work out what was what, while people scowled at me, or just stared blankly into space. A thick cloud of cigarette smoke pervaded the place, and something about the absence of daylight and the lack of fresh air made me wonder if the place was actually a detention centre set up by the government to incarcerate all the people they’d caught using Social Security benefit as an arts bursary’ (In the All-Night Cafe, pp. 10-11). This is probably an impression of college hallways and classrooms that most young adults of Generation X or millennials growing up in Britain can relate to: the flickering strip lighting, the apathy amongst both staff and pupils, the sense of suffocating bureaucracy, of life in suspension. And yet out of that dark and maybe even Kafkaesque environment, sometimes the magic happens. People come together and make the best of things – it’s inspiring.
For me, it’s also inspiring that Stuart Murdoch is actually from Ayr. The only other celebrated artist I can think of off the top of my head that hails from Ayr is none other than Robert Burns, so yeah, it’s been awhile since the place has been put on the map, artistically speaking. Belle & Sebastian are usually associated with Glasgow (especially the West End), but for me it’s important to remember their humble beginnings. Ayr still has a pretty cool music scene in terms of acoustic nights in local pubs, but there’s definitely a dearth of actual decent gig venues, especially when it’s producing so many talented musicians through, for example, the well-respected Commercial Music course at the UWS Ayr Campus (see for example Bella and the Bear and the wonderful Shanine Gallagher).
ANYWAY, back to Belle & Sebastian. I wanted to talk about Tigermilk as an example of their oeuvre in general – as the raw, often forgotten diamond. It’s their debut album, though I actually came to B&S first through If You’re Feeling Sinister, having picked it up from Fopp when I moved to the West End for university and decided a B&S CD was a good way of immersing myself in local culture. Tigermilk reminds me of that lost and lonely summer feeling, walking around the city killing time before going to work, worrying about all the books I had to read before September, the people and things and memories I was in love with, that paranoid and desperate desire to write myself and indeed keep writing. It’s a lo-fi sort of album; it feels sweet and magical in that simple way, and you can tell that it marks the moment when the band discovered they had something special going on.
Sometimes the lyrics are a wee bit strange and surreal; the cast of characters Murdoch evokes in his lyrics can be pretty bewildering. The band’s slightly surreal vibe is indicated by the cover art for Tigermilk: a black-and-white picture of Murdoch’s then girlfriend, Joanne Kenney, apparently breastfeeding a toy tiger. Then take a look at the lyrics to ‘My Wandering Days are Over’ for example: ‘Six months on, the winter’s gone / The disenchanted pony / Left the town with the circus boy / The circus boy got lonely / It’s summer, and it’s sister song’s / Been written for the lonely / The circus boy is feeling melancholy’. You’re never sure if the characters are metaphors for existentially pained middle-class indie kids (lost in the job market/lost in the adult world circus of mad capitalism??), or actual protagonists in B&S’s musical universe. That’s the poetry of it – you get to decide. It all sort of makes sense, this girl with spiky black hair nourishing a toy tiger; sure, you can take it as symbolic, but it’s also just intriguing and slightly controversial enough to draw attention to a debut album.
One of B&S’s unique selling points is the whimsical fictions they weave through their ‘brand’ as a band. Take, for example, the sleeve notes to Tigermilk: they detail a cute little tale about Sebastian and Isabelle, the namesakes for the band.
Sebastian met Isabelle outside the Hillhead Underground Station, in Glasgow. Belle harassed Sebastian, but it was lucky for him that she did. She was very nice and funny, and sang very sweetly. Sebastian was not to know this, however. Sebastian was melancholy.
He had placed an advert in the local supermarket. He was looking for musicians. Belle saw him do it. That’s why she wanted to meet him. She marched straight up to him unannounced and said, ‘Hey you!’ She asked him to teach her to play the guitar. Sebastian doubted he could teach her anything, but he admired her energy, so he said ‘Yes’.
It was strange. Sebastian had just decided to become a one-man band. It is always when you least expect it that something happens. Sebastian had befriended a fox because he didn’t expect to have any new friends for a while. He still loved the fox, although he had a new distraction. Suddenly he was writing many new songs. Sebastian wrote all of his best songs in 1995. In fact, most of his best songs have the words ‘Nineteen Ninety-five’ in them. It bothered him a little. What will happen in 1996?
They worked on the songs in Belle’s house. Belle lived with her parents, and they were rich enough to have a piano. It was in a room by itself at the back of the house, overlooking the garden. This was where Belle taught Sebastian to put on mascara. If Belle’s mum had known this, she would not have been happy. She was paying for the guitar lessons. The lessons gave Sebastian’s life some structure. He went to the barber’s to get a haircut.
Belle and Sebastian are not snogging. Sometimes they hold hands, but that is only a display of public solidarity. Sebastian thinks Belle ‘kicks with the other foot’. Sebastian is wrong, but then Sebastian can never see further than the next tragic ballad. It is lucky that Belle has a popular taste in music. She is the cheese to his dill pickle.
Belle and Sebastian do not care much for material goods. But then neither Belle nor Sebastian has ever had to worry about where the next meal is coming from. Belle’s most recent song is called Rag Day. Sebastian’s is called The Fox In The Snow. They once stayed in their favourite caf’ for three solid days to recruit a band. Have you ever seen The Magnificent Seven? It was like that, only more tedious. They gained a lot of weight, and made a few enemies of waitresses.
Belle is sitting highers in college. She didn’t listen the first time round. Sebastian is older than he looks. He is odder than he looks too. But he has a good heart. And he looks out for Belle, although she doesn’t need it. If he didn’t play music, he would be a bus driver or be unemployed. Probably unemployed. Belle could do anything. Good looks will always open doors for a girl.
You’ve got it all here: the playful and ultra twee imagery ‘(she is the cheese to his dill pickle’), the hint of queer culture and crossdressing that sometimes runs through B&S songs (‘This was where Belle taught Sebastian to put on mascara’), the DIY elements, the spatial immersion in Glasgow’s West End as a kind of leafy wonderland where people own pianos in airy rooms overlooking gardens. It’s honest and cute and totally unashamed, totally uninterested in being cool. Compared with the stylised, rock’n’roll swagger of Britpop, this album (originally released in 1996 then rereleased in 1999) is so refreshing. The tale of Belle and Sebastian is a short story, more than an explanation of the album’s lyrics or ‘concept’; it’s a bit ambiguous, a touchstone for all the other B&S characters who populate later LP – it’s perhaps, most importantly, an indication of the band’s consistent literary bent.
‘Sebastian was melancholy’. Well, melancholy is probably the overriding emotion on Tigermilk. Melancholy being that feeling of sadness, yearning and inexplicable loss. An indulgent feeling, a languid and probably narcissistic feeling that is almost pleasurable despite lolling around in the negative. Freud, in Mourning and Melancholia (1915) famously distinguishes mourning and melancholia thus: ‘In mourning the world has become impoverished and empty, during melancholia, it is the ego itself’. Mourning is about the loss of a specific object, whereas melancholia is a vaguer feeling, a depression with no apparent or obvious source, a swallowing up of selfhood into narcissistic darkness. One of the reason’s I really like ‘I Don’t Love Anyone’ is its in-your-face rejection of the Coca Cola style let’s-all-hold-hands-and-be-happy version of love, the assertion of personal endurance and the often denigrated value of independence in a world where we’re all supposed to follow the crowd: ‘But if there’s one thing that I learned when I was still a child / It’s to take a hiding / Yeah if there’s one thing that I learned when I was still at school / It’s to be alone’. I was that kid who sometimes liked to walk around the playground alone, making up stories in my head – adults just assume it’s because you’re being bullied but there’s a golden value to imagination and it’s easier to forget that as an adult, easy to forget that sometimes you need time out from your friends to be in your own mind.
A lot of Tigermilk is about trying to negotiate personal identity in an often problematic adult world with few opportunities for anyone vaguely creative. It’s worth quoting a hearty chunk of ‘Expectations’ to demonstrate this:
Monday morning wake up knowing that you’ve got to go to school
Tell your mum what to expect, she says it’s right out of the blue
Do you want to work in Debenham’s, because that’s what they expect
Start in Lingerie, and Doris is your supervisor
And the head said that you always were a queer one from the start
For careers you say you went to be remembered for your art
Your obsession gets you known throughout the school for being strange
Making life-size models of the Velvet Underground in clay
In the queue for lunch they take the piss, you’ve got no appetite
And the rumour is you never go with boys and you are tight
So they jab you with a fork, you drop the tray and go berserk
While your cleaning up the mess the teacher’s looking up your skirt
We’ve all known (or been ourselves!) the weird kid obsessed with music, inviting abuse with every strange word spoken. Wear something black, a bit of eyeliner and you’re inviting folk to ask you if you “shag dead folk”. There’s always the one of many that has a whole collection of cool things to say, to contribute to the world, but ends up in retail, in a call-centre, maybe waitressing. Again, Belle & Sebastian are the band of the underdog, the folk (and there are a lot of them) who slog away at day jobs but don’t give up on their dreams – whether those dreams involve becoming a star of track and field, a model, artist, musician, writer.
Tigermilk, then,isn’t just a melancholy album; there are some feel good moments, such as ‘You’re Just a Baby’, which features handclaps and a nice rock’n’roll beat with a simple, serenading refrain: ‘You’re just a baby, baby girl’. Fundamentally, Belle & Sebastian are a pop band, and a damn good one at that. Stuart Murdoch recently wrote and directed his own film, God Help the Girl, which more or less demonstrates his near-religious philosophy of pop music, as the character James (fittingly played by the singer from pop/electronic band Years & Years) proclaims:
A man needs only write one genius song, one song that lives forever in the hearts of the populous to make him forever divine. […] Many women and men have lived empty, wasted lives in attics trying to write classic pop songs. What they don’t realise is it’s not for them to decide. It’s God. Or, the god of music. Or, the part of God that concerns Himself with music.
This is some fairly interesting religious imagery coming from a singer (Murdoch) who has always been openly Christian. And of course, the hyperbolic emphasis on music’s divine significance here is perhaps a cheeky dig at the ego of the pop star, but it also touches on the importance of universalism for pop. It’s easy to consume, it should transcend generations, it should be technically perfect – the satisfying work of a ‘genius’. But good pop, as Belle & Sebastian demonstrate, isn’t all bubblegum songs about loving your sweetheart – it also has that spark of something else. For me, B&S capture a very specific experience of existential bewilderment in the modern world, combined with the right amount of romance, comedy, storytelling and a healthy streak of cynicism. God Help the Girl is twee as hell, but it’s also a loving portrait of Glasgow, of the early days of being in a band, the freedom of summer days drifting down the canal with the world shining bright around you. It’s maybe also a portrait of unrequited love. And, crucially, it transforms that cliche, the power of music, into something sparkly and fun as well as serious and uplifting – it is a musical after all. Its ambiguous ending, with the heroine (significantly called Eve – more religious imagery!) finally leaving the city and on a train ride to London where she intends to try and make it ‘alone’ after her existential rebirth and artistic awakening in Glasgow, is perhaps its strongest point – it’s a feminist assertion of personal creative desire as opposed to remaining tied down to the things your friends want.
Once again, Murdoch puts complete faith in his slightly damaged protagonists; he encourages us to just trust our creativity. Maybe that’s why I love Belle & Sebastian so much, because sure, their songs are mostly golden, pastel-hazed pop, but it’s not that simple; they embrace that wavering, magical and sad place between warm dreams and cold reality, and represent all the poor souls who live there in that limbo, such as the eponymous heroine from ‘Mary Jo’: ‘Your life is never dull in your dreams / A pity that it never seems to work the way you see it’. And even though such songs are full of melancholy, you’re still treated, as in an Arctic Monkeys song, to some brilliant lyrical candy: ‘Cause what you want is a cigarette / And a thespian with a caravanette in Hull’. So maybe that’s the special element, the thing that makes the everyday divine, that elevates the ordinary into a valid subject for pop music. And maybe, pleb that I am at heart, that’s why I love it.
(Warning: contains possible spoilers up until the end of episode four).
Moving from plumes of cloud and sullen mist to the flaming spit of fire below, the opening sequence of Poldark sets us up for a journey through the sublime chasms of history down to the core of its hero’s heart. The scene is Cornwall in the 1780s. The story is a beautifully rendered television voyage through various Romantic archetypes, culminating in the protagonist himself, who stands alone facing the open, churning sea, in the manner of Caspar David Friedrich’s famous Romantic painting, ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’. In the first episode, Captain Ross Poldark returns, miraculously alive, from the American War of Independence, bearing the mark of his experience in the distinctive dark scar upon his cheek. After the battle scene in which Poldark alone escapes with his life, a dreamy flashback presents our hero in smart uniform, ready to go abroad, acquiescing to the breathless urge of his lover Elizabeth: ‘Pray do not be reckless, I wish you to return’. Well, like Robinson Crusoe from his shipwreck and 28 years of island isolation, Poldark does return. Only, while Crusoe returns to ‘civilisation’ to find a hefty profit from his Brazilian plantations to fill his greasy palms, Poldark returns to find his finances in ruins and his dear Elizabeth now married to his insipid cousin. What follows is a tale of Poldark’s redemption; once the idle gambler at war only to ‘escape the gallows’, he evolves into a near prototypical Romantic hero, embodying the necessary sentiment, broody solitude and bad-boy glamour that brought Byron his fame and trouble.
But while Poldark represents an idealised benevolence cut with rugged beauty, he is not a dandyish poet in the manner of Byron or Wilde, but a man of war and experience. While Byron would go off gallivanting with his many women, writing hopes of radicalism back home, Poldark says little of his time overseas – a quietness that only emphasises the intrigue of his character. As the frequent close-ups of his scar insist, this man has done battle, a distinction that reinforces his difference to the other men of Cornwall’s stuffy society.
And indeed, Poldark puts his experience to virtuous use. He represents in some ways that much-loved ‘cult of sensibility’ that wormed its way into novels and poetry of the eighteenth-century: rescuing a wayward waif, providing work for starving labourers and delivering an impassioned courtroom speech in defence of an unfortunate young poacher (played – did anyone else notice – by metal-head Rich from Skins). Sensibility, as we might guess from the title of Henry Mackenzie’s popular novel The Man of Feeling (1771), was a kind of fashion for displaying emotion; a newly remodelled masculinity which was exhibited through tears and expression and other public manifestations of feeling. While Poldark is by no means the soppy hero of Mackenzie’s novel (the Editor’s Introduction to The Man of Feeling warns that the novel ‘proceeds in due course through so many tears that it is hardly to be called a dry book’), his compassion towards the struggling labourers contributes to our image of him as a benign venture capitalist, a hero of industry for our postmodern age of corrupt public figures and criminal bankers. The symbolism of a man attempting to re-open a mine threatened by closure and poor investment, to work alongside his miners in the sweaty heat of the pit and to share the profit, was perhaps not lost on Poldark’s viewers when it was first broadcast in the 1970s. While many period dramas fall into the trap of caricature when representing the ‘lower classes’, Poldark offsets this problem by honing in on individual experiences which highlight the precarious economic and social position of Cornwall’s labourers in the late eighteenth-century: the plight of the young poacher, and, importantly, the story of Demelza, who is adopted from the streets by Poldark as a house-maid and later becomes his wife.
This is a show that milks the viewer’s voyeurism. Any chance it gets to parade Aiden Turner’s sweaty golden torso, visible as he swims in the sea or hacking at the land, it takes it. However, such enticing demonstrations of abs and strength are not merely to keep Turner loyalists from the Being Human days happy. They also serve as an interesting parallel to scenes of Demelza alone in nature. Well, not quite alone. While Poldark ranges the cliffs on foot or on horseback – once again parading the dazzling iconography of Romantic solitude – Demelza wanders off at dawn with her little scruffy dog. While Poldark is a figure of Promethean strength and virility (here another connection between strength and suffering – Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound), Demelza’s ethereal looks, in tandem with her ‘exotic’ Cornish dialect, establish her as an almost mythological figure of Romantic fascination. There are many tender scenes where she lies languid in the long grass, playing with pretty cornflowers, or trailing over the rolling cliffs; but there are also scenes where she tills the land with all the power of Poldark himself. We are led into believing the credibility of their marriage because the show sets them up as equals. Demelza is, in a way, Wordsworth’s ‘Solitary Reaper’: the ‘lass’ with the regional accent, who ‘cuts and binds the grain, | And sings a melancholy strain’ which flows through the land with ‘more welcome notes’ than a ‘Nightingale’. When we first encounter her, begging in the street and being heckled, she is clearly a ‘peasant’, a mess of coarseness and dirt; but her time as Poldark’s domestic tames her appearance, though not her spirit. While Wordsworth’s female Reaper was just one of the rural characters to feature in the revolutionary Lyrical Ballads (1798), Demelza is not merely a figure of some traveller’s amusement or poetic interest. The camera does not gaze at her always from a distance, but switches to close-ups and pan shots of the scenes around her: the swaying grain, the face of her dog, some plain little flower or the ever-present sea. At times, then, we share her perception. Episode by episode, we are lured in with her sweet pure voice; significantly, the voice which settles Poldark’s love for her.
The master/servant romantic dyad is certainly not an original one, but a trope embedded in many prominent examples of canonical novels since the eighteenth-century. Hailed as one of the first ‘novels’ in the sense recognised today, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1970) tells through a series of its heroine’s diaries and letters the story of a virtuous servant girl resisting the sexual advances of her master, eventually redeeming his character through her writing and in turn being rewarded with an equal marriage based on love and respect. What made Richardson’s novel unique was that it placed value upon a ‘mere’ servant-girl’s right to self-respect, to protect her chastity and resist the common (and indeed legal) assumption that a servant-girl was her master’s property, to do with what he would. Also, the level of psychological detail afforded by Richardson’s epistolary form allowed the reader an incisive insight into the consciousness of Pamela’s character, a consciousness that gained integrity and resistance through letter-writing itself. While Richardson’s novel gives us an excess of detail, Poldark speaks often through silence. It is those moments in the gloomy interiors of Poldark’s home, with the fire flickering shadows over a rustic meal, or against the backdrop of the ocean, with only the gulls’ moaning, that things change between Poldark and Demelza. The show fleshes her out with a backstory and a problem father, a sense of longing for an unspeakable freedom – the kind of Romantic liberty we experience in her plain, almost Blakean singing.
When Poldark and Demelza do get married, almost on a whim, the show deals with the social consequences of this unlikely coupling. Like Pamela, who has to get used to calling her master by her name, Demelza struggles to address Poldark as ‘Ross’ instead of ‘master’ or ‘sir’. Moreover, the rebellious couple face an onslaught not only of gossip but the kind of exclusion that has very material consequences, not just in terms of how Poldark is treated by polite society but even in business, as investors withdraw from his start-up mining company. This is something Demelza worries about greatly, as does Pamela in her marriage to her master, Mr. B-, as she reflects:
The great Mr. B—— has done finely! he has married his poor servant wench! will some say. The ridicule and rude jests of his equals, and companions too, he must stand: And the disdain of his relations, and indignation of Lady Davers, his lofty sister! Dear good gentleman! he will have enough to do, to be sure! O how shall I merit all these things at his hand! I can only do the best I can; and pray to God to reward him; and resolve to love him with a pure heart, and serve him with a sincere obedience. I hope the dear gentleman will continue to love me for this; for, alas! I have nothing else to offer!
Richardson’s novel, I should add, was riffing off the tradition of conduct literature, expressing a kind of Puritan message of self-restraint and virtue. It loses pace in the second half, where Richardson has shunned the romantic convention of ending on a marriage and instead spends the rest of the book describing Pamela’s efforts to run a virtuous domestic set-up. It is with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) that the servant-girl heroine is imbued with a wilder, more defiant streak. While Pamela shows her strength not through any physical feat (indeed, her only two escape attempts constitute a foolish notion to drown herself in the garden pond, and a runaway plan which is aborted when she comically mistakes plain old cows for menacing bulls), Jane displays real physical endurance when she manages to flee Mr. Rochester after discovering about the sham marriage she was almost tricked into. I cannot help but quote that famous, impassioned speech that she makes to her would-be husband:
Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!–I have as much soul as you,–and full as much heart! . . . I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, or even of mortal flesh:–it is my spirit that addresses your spirit: just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,–as we are!
This transcendentalist ideal of love carried through spirit is profoundly Romantic, and one that comes to inhabit the space of Poldark through the mystic enchantments of Demelza’s singing. This taps into Romanticism’s trope of the folk ballad and the femme fatale, found particularly in Keats but also Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’, that warns of the strange seduction of the ‘wild’, exotic female:
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful – a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
Perhaps this description could be applied to Demelza too, as she dances at the village carnival and skips fairylike along the cliff top meadows. In Keats’ ‘La Bella Dame Sans Merci’ (1819), the speaker meets a curious, vampire-like woman, who seduces him then leaves him cold and alone in the ‘gloam’ of the lake’s bird-less landscape (and, of course, birds are a very importance presence in Romantic poetry). It is interesting that in the twentieth century, with the impact of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), that the myth of the vampire, the lethal seducer, was transferred from the female to male (Turner himself played the tortured vampire Mitchell in Being Human). There are no vampires in Poldark. Demelza is more of the innocent fairy type, embodying the kind of alienated selfhood that Jane encounters as she perceives herself in the mirror: ‘the effect of a real spirit […] like one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp’. Estranged from what she thought she was – a mere governess – and hurled into the beautiful turmoil of a fairy story.
It is in Demelza’s metamorphosis from fawn-like (as Elizabeth describes her) child to Poldark’s wife that the show reaps the reward for both parties. When Demelza finally works up the courage to try on a jewel-green dress she finds stuffed into a drawer, it is in this dress that she winds up in bed at last with her master. Yet even here she still looks shrunken, pixie-like in the dress too-big for her, representing the absurdity of the bourgeois identity that she is inadvertently stepping into, like Cinderella. Here, she remains, like ‘plain Jane’, elusive and fairy like, ephemeral in her selfhood. It is in her later endurances, her resistance to the jibes of polite society, that Demelza emerges as our true heroine.
In Brontë’s novel, stumbling alone and starving over the moors, Jane Eyre embodies both female vulnerability and endurance against hardship within the stifling social conditions of the era. Steadfastly she refuses to be Rochester’s mistress and live under a sham marriage. Eventually, like Pamela, she too is rewarded for her virtue, by in turn claiming her own (now, like Poldark, wounded) Byronic hero, whose redemption is signified in the purging of a dramatic fire. The hearth is enflamed from quiet warmth to primitive passion. At the end of episode 4 of Poldark, Ross confesses his love to Demelza in a scene of bedroom intimacy that well resembles that of Pamela and Jane Eyre:
‘You are not too ashamed o’ me?’ asks Demelza, sitting on the bed.
‘Why do you think I married you?’ her husband turns to her.
‘I don’t rightly know.’
‘To satisfy an appetite, to save myself from being alone […] I had few expectations. At best, you’d be a distraction – a bandage to ease a wound. But I was mistaken. You have redeemed me; I am your humble servant, and I love you’.
Like Rochester, and Mr. B-, Poldark is a man redeemed by humble love. Only time will tell (no spoilers) how this pans out. The novel is a form which tends to drive towards closure, the pursuit of some fulfillment of marriage, death or didactic morality; whereas television drama feeds us with cliffhangers, the always open promise of a sequel. This is of course a simplistic distinction, but even so, the point remains that with a book, you can physically see when you are getting to the end, where the pages are running out, and with television, there is a kind of abstracted spatiality and temporality that leaves you always hanging.
As if I were watching a serialised version of Byron’s biography, I intend for the rest of the series merely to sit back and enjoy the picturesque landscapes and the pretty hair, the romance and tragedy and beautiful costumes. All acts of consumption I suppose, which is fitting because Romanticism, as Timothy Morton argues in The Poetics of Spice, invented consumerism; consumerism in the sense of Marxian ‘commodity fetishism’ – consuming something for its representative, fantasy qualities more than for the use value of the thing itself. Wordsworth with his mountains, Coleridge with his opium; objects of desire which offer some form of imaginative potential to the self. But I won’t go into anymore detail; that’s another story, another romance.
My experience of watching Black Mirror: White Christmas was a sharp departure from the usual mindless festive telly fare. Like a lingering nightmare, it will hover over the dreamy limbos of television’s ‘Christmas Special’ tradition for years to come. Black Mirror (while we can certainly argue that some episodes are better than others) has successfully created a lethal concoction of technological speculation, sharp drama and black humour that stands out amidst the genres of science fiction, reality tv or documentary which tend to be employed to convey the themes explored in Black Mirror’s fictional anthology series. Themes like the impact of technology on our everyday lives, relationships, desires, minds.
On Twitter, the show’s writer, king of cynicism Charlie Brooker, promised that his Christmas offering wouldn’t be anything darker than what writers at the BBC had in store for the residents of Albert Square, but having only read a handful of bemused Facebook statuses to account for said Eastenders episode, I don’t feel fit to judge between the two programmes. Black Mirror delves into the future that hangs over us like an Apple update that keeps stalling our computers. The future that is five minutes (or, if your MacBook is as slow as mine, five hours) away. Drew Grant of The New York Observer has aptly described Black Mirror’s episodes as ‘self-contained parables about the modern condition’. The parable is a good description of Brooker’s show because it highlights the importance of the moral conclusions and dilemmas which entangle every episode. In this one-off Christmas Special, Brooker weaves three tales together through a darkly layered story of love, loss, crime, voyeurism, punishment, seduction and of course technology. What comes out at the end is a Beckettian acceptance of the futility of time; a sense of the fragility of everything in the face of time’s endurance. Watching Brooker’s characters recount the bittersweet and painful tales of their lives, against the sinister backdrop of technology and the ironic happiness of Christmas, I was reminded of Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape. The protagonist Krapp stares into and sometimes physically leans over a tape recorder, which plays back the tapes he has made himself, voices recalling distant and familiar memories. There is the same sense of alienation and poignancy, the same mechanical desire that intermingles in the softness of human despondency.
What drew attention to this particular episode was its casting of Jon Hamm as a lead character. Hamm has become something of an icon for his role as the womanising advertising director Don Draper in Matthew Weiner’s period series Mad Men, but in this feature-length Black Mirror episode he proves his talents lie beyond smoking, nipping bourbon, cheating and delivering great advertising speeches. Hamm isn’t known for playing sinister figures, but then Brooker is never so simple as to create any such ‘simple’ characters. In Black Mirror, the basic components of the technology presented (often already recognisable in our daily lives) are underpinned by an endless constellation of questions and implications. Everything is always layered, complex, ethically challenging – from the ontological questions about what is really real in our hyper-mediated modern lives, to how new technology plays out in more concrete areas like the justice system. This is not a one-dimensional view of the future, but a conversation woven with logical gaps, technical and ethical problems, which invites the audience’s participation. We create our own fates; Brooker doesn’t dictate the determinism of technological evolution, but reveals our own often regrettable involvement in our dystopian downfall.
The show begins in a remote cottage where a man named Joe (Rafe Spall) awakens to the sound of familiar Christmas music. He looks gloomily in the mirror and touches a photograph of a girl that’s stuck there. He walks into the kitchen to discover what appears to be his roommate, Matt (played by Hamm), whipping up Christmas dinner. The tale then unfolds as the two sit down, and the charismatic Matt persuades Joe to be a bit sociable for once and enjoy some conversation over lunch with him. It’s uncertain what the relationship between these two men really is. The story proceeds through a series of flashbacks, as Matt tells Joe all about his past. The story is meant to explain why he is here, since Matt is looking for Joe to tell him why he is here. This central setting for the story that frames the narrative from start to finish harks back to that old tradition of framing devices that is often used in what we might call ‘ghost’ stories of sorts. Journeys to the dark heart of human nature: think of Marlow, travelling up the Thames in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as he recounts his tale of colonial horror along the Congo in Africa; think of the epistolary narrative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; think of Wuthering Heights, where much of the story comes to the reader through the yarn woven by Nelly Dean the housekeeper as she sits knitting and talking to our primary narrator, Lockwood. In all these texts, characters are not so much human beings as they are shadows of discourse, and maybe you could say the same about the state of people in the digital age…
Such framing and meta-awareness of storytelling is of course prominent in cinema too, although often for different purposes beyond the sense of alienation and epistemological confusion evoked by such literary techniques. The likes of Martin McDonagh, in his stage dramas and screenplays, employs this technique or trope to reflect on – among other things – the problem of mediated reality in a so-called ‘postmodern’ era. In Black Mirror, Brooker goes beyond the televisual technologies which defined the era of high postmodernism to incorporate a future of duplicating, haptic and intensely interactive technologies. It is hard to shoehorn this programme into ‘science fiction’ or ‘crime fiction’ or merely ‘dark drama’. Everything is ambiguous, just like White Christmas’ central location. The audience doesn’t know what or where here is, other than a snow-coated cottage in the middle of nowhere. There’s a flickering fire and sense of impending disaster. Matt jokes that the cottage was only meant to include essentials, but weirdly that included a string of red tinsel. You can’t get away from Christmas, as Joe’s unfortunate avatar finds out in the episode’s end. In the three parts, we shift between the stories of Matt and Joe, as well as a broader story about the systemic use (and abuse) of technology, and the interwoven stories of the characters whose lives connect with our protagonists’.
You see, this is Black Mirror; things are never straightforward or linear. Matt used to be some kind of romance coach who provides dating advice to men by talking to them internally like an inner voice. Taken out of context, the person in question would look like they were talking to imaginary voices, like a caricatured schizophrenic. Implanted technology allows Matt to witness every action taken by the other man, Harry, through Harry’s own eyes. What kind of panopticon effect would this have on our consciousness, if we knew that everything we saw was being seen in directly the same manner by someone else? I’m immediately thinking of Google Glass here: technology that interacts with the optical function, that projects information between the eye, the world and the brain. Our own perception is shared through wireless communication, in ways that maybe we can no longer control. There are sinister consequences here, as Matt’s advice inadvertently leads the other man, Harry, to successfully seduce a rather unstable woman who is convinced that since they both hear voices they should pass to the ‘next stage’. The next stage being death; not just quitting her job, it turns out. She feeds him poison and he dies right there on screen, for Matt and his audience to see. It turns out that Matt helps shy and lonely men seduce women as a hobby, and in turn shares the footage of these encounters with other men, in what seems to be a sinister extension of contemporary internet ‘live-cam’ pornography. Only, the woman and man in question don’t know the extent to which their actions are being viewed and exploited. It doesn’t seem too far off from the hacking scandals that plagued the likes of Jennifer Lawrence’s iCloud only this summer. The story deals with these issues of consent and broadcast communication on the one hand, but also the ease with which Harry succeeds in seducing women with Matt’s tricks is a little chilling (not merely just unconvincing). In the context of a wider narrative on mediation, it makes us reflect on how much human attraction is based on pre-scripted ideas that are encoded in our brains from so much exposure to romantic discourse – from the old technics of writing and literature to computer games and cinema.
The poison scene weirdly reminded me of a corrupted version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Hamlet’s father is killed by having poison fed into his ear. An untimely revenge; perhaps the consequences of inauthenticity. The ghost of Hamlet’s father reappears in the play, and even when he is not present, the spectre of his wish haunts Hamlet’s frustrated consciousness. White Christmas is also concerned with ghosts. We might even consider the title an ironic reference to Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’: ‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas / Just like the ones I used to know’. Well, these lyrics seem pretty sinister in the context of this episode, where what’s white is the symbolically smothering snow and the egg-shaped ‘cookie’ device that connects to an implant in people’s brains. An implant that duplicates the self into a ‘cookie’, a cookie which is externalised and given a simulated body. A body that might not be real, but is certainly sentient.
If we used to know Christmas as pure and white, all love and peace and Sainsbury’s-spouted Christmas truces and freedom from suffering, Black Mirror throws this day of spirited possibility into suspicion. The twist of the tale reveals a moral dilemma that haunts the use of such duplicating technology that takes us towards the realm of cloning; but, as in episode Be Right Back, keeps it close enough to the present state of technological reality to really disturb. Is it wrong to harm things that aren’t real, but still feel pain? Can we keep our simulated extra-selves as slaves to enhance our lives, even if it forces them into a lifetime of torture? What does it do to our personal identity to be physically conscious of doing harm to some simulated duplication of ourselves?
As with Hamlet, the theme of retribution runs rife through the episode. Partners punish one another through ‘blocking’: a way of cancelling out an entire person – as you may do on Twitter and Facebook – only in real life. The person in question becomes a pixellated greyish blur, like a glitch from a computer game that you can never quite get close to properly, even though they could still do you physical violence. Weirdly enough, the blocked figures in White Christmas reminded me of Pokemon Red and Blue’s ‘Missingno’, which appeared as an odd remainder of scrambled code that never quite got fixed in the games’ final cut. A Pokemon that appeared mysteriously without indexical recognition; an unknown creature. The name ‘Missingno’ also seems somehow relevant here, as it stands for ‘missing number’, as if the human in question was stripped of his/her name and personality, and left only as the grey matter of their brains, the bureaucratic residue of a ‘missing number’, 1984 style.
Only, unlike the geometric shape of Missingno (oddly resembling a missing puzzle piece), in Black Mirror you still see the human outline of the person you block. The fluid movement of their head and limbs. Their speech roars at you like a radio out of tune and communication will never ultimately travel as you want it to. Even in photographs, the blocked person dissolves from view. An absence cut permanently from your life; or at least until they unblock you. With great precision and a balance between steely analytic satire on contemporary social media and emotional humanity, Black Mirror explores the human consequences of such technologies: heartbreak, misunderstanding, new forms of enduring punishment. Matt is ultimately punished for his role in inadvertently causing Harry’s murder by being universally blocked, so that all humans are to him blobbed and distorted like a sea of Missingnos, and to everyone else, Matt becomes a red blur. We might think back to the days of MSN Messenger, where if we blocked someone from talking to us, on their Contact List we would forever appear as the red ‘Appear Offline’ icons. Always within reach but never fully present or within contact, we would linger elusively on their list of contacts but every message they tried to send would be lost in the ether. Technology, from the beginning, is a story of both absence and presence, communication and severance. It is all too easy to talk to someone across the globe, to love them truly even though they may be a stranger; it is equally all too easy to cut someone out of your life seemingly forever at the click of a button, given how much time we devote to living online.
I think it’s appropriate that such an episode is aired at Christmas time; the time when everyone finds themselves worshipping at the circuitboard altar of a new tablet or phone or smart-watch. It issues a kind of warning, at the same time as being dramatically gripping and comedically entertaining. We live in an age of Sony hacks, Gamergate, iCloud leaks, attempted murders committed by children under the influence of online Creepypasta mythologies, Twitter abuse storms and the rife availability of online child pornography, smartphone apps which track your every dietary intake and calorie burned, as if you were some cookie of yourself trained and disciplined by the ethereal whims of your own idealised higher being. Technology is clearly something we frequently use to abuse ourselves and one another as human beings; it brings out whatever darkness is already in our nature and provides the platform for exhibiting this darkness more effectively. If we lose ourselves to this ease of abuse, where will we be in five, ten, twenty years time? Maybe only Charlie Brooker knows.
If Back to the Future got some things right about 2015 (pollution, nostalgic 1980s cultural revival), and others pretty wrong (hover-boards and flying cars) it’s difficult to say how much Black Mirror gets right about our future. The most chilling aspect of all Brooker’s episodes is perhaps how much they touch on a prosthetic logic whereby we lose ourselves to the tools we employ to help us that is already in operation today. A prosthetic logic that only needs a few more steps in Santa’s workshop to become Brooker’s nightmare vision of reality. There is nothing wrong with the technology itself per se, the show suggests, but the way we lose our humanity by giving ourselves up fully to the wonders of its operation. Surely the best metaphor for this is Oona Chaplin’s character, who literally forges a double of herself (called a cookie) and enslaves this poor spirit animal to a life of making toast and adjusting the volume of ambient music, simply for the benefit of a more efficient and technically-enhanced lifestyle. If we surrender all morality and consciousness to the endless improvement of this so-called ‘lifestyle’, aren’t we forgetting the things that make life worth living? White Christmas ends with Matt drifting out into the ultimate alienation of universal blocking, and Joe in a hysterical condition in his prison cell whilst his cookie lives in an infinite torture of Wizzard’s ‘I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day’ being played on repeat while he exists forever trapped in the isolated kitchen. This manic but also slightly funny conclusion reveals the show’s unique blend of human sympathy and nightmare desolation. No matter how many times he tries to smash the radio, the song keeps playing. It’s like that time Celebrity Big Brother decided to lock Basshunter in a room for six hours with his song ‘All I Ever Wanted’ playing on repeat really loudly. Sure, Brooker’s ending is a bleak reminder that Christmas isn’t always great for everyone; but it’s also a reminder that you should be careful what you wish for. After all, it’s easy enough to become slaves to the technology that enchants us, but not so easy to sever ourselves from this technology, once we’ve realised that it’s usurped our humanity, and maybe even our sanity.
I have a confession to make: I am a twenty-one year old university student who listens to The Archers. You know The Archers, right? That stuffy old show on Radio 4 about farming that your gran sometimes puts on when she does the gardening? Well, I promise you that there’s more to the show than that irritating theme tune which is as intrinsic to Radio 4 as John Humphreys, Women’s Hour or Desert Island Discs. I’d like to explain why I like The Archers, and contest that it isn’t stuffy, boring or dated, but rather an intriguing slice of rural escapism that is worth listening to for the mere thirteen minutes it takes out of your day. Sure, I started listening initially as a silly form of procrastination, but I was quickly hooked and now listening to the show is shamelessly part of my everyday routine.
Its tagline has changed from the somewhat patronising ‘an everyday story of country folk’, to ‘contemporary drama in a rural setting’. These days, ‘folk’ has slightly derogatory connotations, evoking ideas of ‘simple’ people living in a rose-tinted vision of twee village life. ‘Folks’ has a somewhat working-class, ruffian ‘Otherness’ to it, lending the term to a usage of inclusion or exclusion. There is also the more American semantics of the term, which has become embroiled in much political rhetoric, whereby ‘folks’ names a group of people spoken of negatively, or at least in terms of Otherness; as Liesl Schillinger (2014) relates:
Back in August, the [American] President had regretted the excesses of the CIA toward yet another group in the aftermath of 9/11, when he said, “We tortured some folks”; while, several years before, he had denounced domestic fearmongers who demonized his healthcare plan, because “some of the same folks who are spreading these tall tales have fought against Medicare in the past.” The “folks” President Obama speaks of often have a negative or alien aura, a quality of “them,” not “us.” They are terrorists or armed militants, hard-hearted ideologues or benighted unfortunates. This is new.
The folks of The Archers are generally not terrorists or rightwing opponents to Obamacare, but characters deserving of empathy and intrigue in their own right. They are no longer parodies or exaggerated exemplars of ‘country life’. What’s more, the show has its own political and sociological structure: a class system that ranges from fieldwork to managing hotels, age differences, cultural conflicts, economic interests and so on. There are the middle-class characters (the farm-owners, those that have inherited property and business – the Archers themselves), the nouveau riche, the business owners, the farmers, the tycoons that want to build a bypass through the beautiful fields, the cooks, the posh-mums, the drinkers – the, ahem, Scottish character Jazzer (a category of his own) – who would give any edgy ‘contemporary drama’ a run for his money. I mean, just look at his character profile on The Archers’ BBC website:
In wilder times he’s been known to steal cars, grow cannabis and abuse ketamine, but in recent years he’s shaped up, helping out with Tom Archer’s pigs and Mike Tucker’s milk round.
In fact he’s turned the latter into something of an adventure, befriending one or two of his clients rather too readily. Commitment is not in his dictionary, as many Borsetshire women have discovered.
▪Likes – Music, women, illegal substances
▪Dislikes – Authority, healthy food, spiders
▪Highs – A passionate one-night-only with Fallon Rogers, whom he quietly adores
▪Lows – Nearly killing himself with ketamine
Nearly killing himself with ketamine. Well, that’s not a bland old story about sheep escaping or knitting competitions. In fact, the show enacts a careful balance between the weighty yet more banal issues of farming life (the rise in milk prices, methods of pig farming, village fetes and so on) and the meaty drama – extra-marital affairs, interracial relationships, suicide, sex, illness, crime (including arson, drug-dealing and diamond smuggling), business problems, familial conflicts, the joy of enterprise, childbirth, death. The problem of naming children: that amusing storyline where Lynda is sceptical of posh-lady Leonie’s decision to name her child ‘Mowgli’.
Of course, Jazzer is a pretty much reformed character now, enjoying his sessions at the local pub but working hard for other farmers, but there are plenty of other dramas running through the show. For instance, the other week, we got the show’s take on intergenerational conflicts within feminism. When Helen Archer decides she wants to quit her job running Borsetshire Blue Cheese and become a full-time mum, her mother Pat scolds her for casting aside the opportunities that her generation of feminists created. Why would you want to go back to the 1950s, going bored out of your mind? she asks her daughter. Helen insists it is a choice she – not her fiancé Rob – made, but there is something sinister about this whole situation. Lunch ready on the table for him coming home, shelves sparkling after careful dusting and some flamboyant dinner on the table in the evening. Rob’s crooning voice praising it all, urging her with that underlying patronisation to ‘take a break’ from her hard work. Little Henry, the son, lapping it all up. It’s a thought experiment for contemporary debates within feminism, a storyline that explores a real (albeit predominantly middle class) dilemma between finding childcare and returning to work or being a full-time mum. It will be interesting to see where it goes: will Helen continue enjoying this domestic bliss, or will she go mad with boredom, fall back into identity crisis and her eating-disorder and fall out with Rob with all the wrath of Simone de Beauvoir? Time will tell.
The sexual politics of Ambridge also includes the storyline of Elizabeth and Roy’s affair. Roy had been working for her at Lower Loxley, helping her make the ‘Loxfest’ music festival a success, and generally assisting with the business. But when he fell desperately in love with her, and they slept together twice at two music festivals, things got a bit entangled. I mean, he’s married to Hayley and they have two kids. Soon, Elizabeth’s son Freddie started to catch on, and there was all this Eastenders business about him finding a heart-shaped locket Roy had meant to give to Elizabeth and so on. Freddie went all emo, insulting his mother and locking himself in his room, blasting Smells Like Teen Spirit (I love the show’s representation of teenage angst, I really do). So what happened? Elizabeth sacked Roy because she wanted it to end, and Roy was forced to tell Hayley, his wife. The whole affair has become a dominant, listener-baiting storyline, which provides an insightful representation of the effects of marriage breakup on children. There is something quite visceral about Phoebe (Roy and Hayley’s daughter) and her reaction to finding out from Freddie; she starts to completely ignore or else be really mean to her dad, she runs away to stay at her gran’s, she has general overemotional outbursts. You end up feeling sorry for everyone. Even in its short broadcast time, The Archers gets it right, showing all sides and all motivations. No one is a blanket ‘evil’ character, except perhaps Justin Elliott, CEO of Venture Capitalists Damara, who is entangled in the apocalyptic bypass plans. Indeed, many of the characters in the #SaveAmbridge campaign have a personal vendetta against the man. The show itself, however, reveals all sides of the debate, and it’s an education in town planning, enterprise, social geography as well as ‘everyday country life’.
Of course, The Archers in recent years has been subject to certain controversies, not least for its ‘sexed up’ story-lines, which cost them a few thousand viewers back in 2012. Yet I feel the show balances the odd melodrama with sufficient everyday detail. It’s important to represent storylines about for example, Pat and Tony selling their cattle herd, and young Freddie finding his farmer feet, but the odd marital breakdown, court appearance or sexual awakening doesn’t go amiss in twenty-first century drama. There was even (for a while), a la Hollyoaks, ‘Ambridge Extra’, a spinoff on Radio 4 Extra, which focused on the lives of younger Ambridge characters. Well, there were more affairs and a business trip to Russia where Matt Crawford got tangled with the Mafia and ended up sleeping rough. A far cry from the pleasant bleats of sheep. While adding a bit of intrigue, Ambridge Extra only ran for five series before it was axed. Perhaps it was all just a bit too racy for ‘the common listener’. Or maybe it was just that not enough traditional listeners knew how to access it online (since BBC 4 Extra is a digital channel, unlike Radio 4).
There is, furthermore, something a bit postmodern about The Archers. For one thing, it creates an intriguing blur between fact and fiction, often edited last minute to include contemporary real life events as they unfold. For example, the show portrayed reactions to 9/11, the badger cull, the foot and mouth crisis, the London bombings. It corresponds roughly to the progression of real time, so that Christmas comes in Ambridge when Christmas comes in, well, the World Itself. This is one of the biggest appeals for me: the way seasonal changes and events play out in a fictional alterreality, so that I can hear about lambing and cropping and horse riding and so on even while I’m in the city. A lot of my school friends were farmers, so there’s also a bit of nostalgia there too. Perhaps for other listeners, it’s a certain curiosity about what life is like in the farming world, and as we have seen, The Archers does not paint an idyllic utopia of organic food and harmonious living. Like some Biblical fable, there are the floods, fires and diseases too.
Moreover, the show even pulls in real celebrities for cameo appearances. The summer season in Ambridge was perhaps best encapsulated by the climactic Loxfest (which was wracked with drama when the headline act were pulled out following sexual assault charges to the lead singer). Heroically, The Pet Shop Boys (the actual Pet Shop Boys!) appeared to fill in the missing headline slot, chatting away to David Sedaris and Lynda Snell backstage in a hilarious celeb moment. Then there was the culmination of all things twee and middle-class in Ambridge, when Kirsty Allsopp appeared to open the annual village fete. With Olympic fever hanging over the town, Sir Bradley Wiggins helped out at the Sport Relief Rough and Tumble Challenge (incidentally, in true Archers style, Bradley had to witness Ian punching Rob at said event). The celeb appearances add to the strange reality of the show, existing as it does in a kind of Austen-esque ‘made-up but real’ village and province. Radio drama, as a form, also involves the listener a lot more in producing meaning than say, television soap operas do. For one, you have to imagine the events playing out in your head, and so there is always that extra level of interpretation involved. The snappy but daily appearance of the show also facilitates ongoing Twitter conversations, where users’ comments often provide vital feedback for the show’s producers, who care about what people want out of the drama. Listeners get involved even more directly by playing out the show’s storylines; there is, for example, a Twitter account for the campaign to save Ambridge from commercial development (see @SAVEAmbridge).
And I’m glad that The Archers gets more podcast downloads than the likes of Radio 1’s Scott Mills (cough, crap chart music, cough). It shows that sometimes, what people want is a quick-fix of juicy drama but also the escapism and emotional provocation it provides. The Archers is like an on-going collection of flash fictions, weaving together a rhizomatic assemblage of over 60 characters whose presence infects one another’s storylines and transforms our vision of the village through complex and engaging storylines. In our digital age, the short slice of drama that the show offers is perfect listening, and you can download the episodes as podcasts or wait for the 75-minute omnibus edition on Sundays. I think we are getting a bit of a rural revival lately, with the likes of Jack Thorne’s crime drama Glue fuelling this interest in the dramatic landscapes of the countryside. Glue, a somewhat slow-burning series, offers at least beautiful camera work and acclaimed representation of the Romani community, as well as everyday elements of farm-life – the early mornings, the milkings. Yes, there are elements of D. H. Lawrence style romanticising (the racy hay-bail sex scene, for instance) but there is also gritty reality, the criminal undertones of the local community. Where I’m from, the ‘Young Farmer’s Association’ was associated predominantly with Saturday night escapades of binge-drinking, Ceilidh dancing and alfresco lovemaking (albeit also bridge-playing and flower-arranging contests), so maybe all this racy rural drama isn’t entirely inaccurate. Either way, I hope I’ve persuaded you to give The Archers a go. It’s less than 15 minutes, after all.