The word odyssey, like journey, is of course a literal and figurative force. We might have many journeys in our lives, real or imagined, actual or wished for, but how many attain the status of odyssey? What memories, eras and changes must pass for a thread of narrative to thicken as odyssey? Joyce, in Ulysses, showed us we can have an odyssey of everyday life. If you scale things close enough, the simple act of going out to buy a bar of soap is rich with the complexities and diversions and conflictions of odyssey. Wandering the city streets, akin to being lost at sea. Perhaps odyssey itself is more about a sustained act of noticing, looking backwards while intently in the present. Dwelling in memory’s rich oscillations; when we are aware of our lives having epic proportions, imbuing our actions with this freight of consequence. Maybe the more aware we are of our fragile world, or our fragile existence on this world — how proximate we are to a world without us! — even the simple life, so-called, seems massive, significant, difficult.
But I am not here to talk about the Anthropocene, which we are already passing through, wearing within our skin. Finding the label as though a sticker on an apple, formerly known as, familiar variety almost forgotten through ubiquity — well pressed on various surfaces, deferred. It was a Thursday, the day after Storm Ali wreaked havoc on Glasgow, tearing down trees and scattering leaves, stealing what green of summer was left of leaf and letting it blow forth upon roads of concrete — you might say free, if leaves have an internal stammer for separation, a need for self-definition. I’m not sure the beautiful, connected things do. A foliate thought unfinished. I guess I needed to be free as well, there was a lot of text, swimming around me all morning I couldn’t quite fathom. A thicket of text. Dwell upon ellipsis and offline symbols. So I slathered oil on my creaking bike chain, cycled along the Clyde and found myself at South Block studios for a new exhibition, An Orkney Odyssey, by the CAIM Collective.An Orkney Odyssey features the multi-disciplinary works of Ingrid Budge (photographer), Alastair Jackson (haiku), Moira Buchanan (handmade booklets) and John Cavanagh (sound installation). I recently returned from my first trip to Orkney and was eager to immerse myself in something of those islands again.
South Block studios is a white room, part café, a place smelling pleasantly of coffee. The rest stop between things, east of town. I’ve been here before with a friend, when we were discussing the early days of a new publication. It feels clean, airy, a place of potential. The exhibition consists mostly of Budge’s photographs, presented along the wall with Jackson’s poetic snippets beneath. I say snippets, because one gets the sense that all these impressions and snapshots are fragments of a broader story, a grander drama. My own time on the Orkney islands was limited to the mainland, but as the ferry curved round past Hoy, I sensed that to really experience life here, you have to think in archipelagos, rather than discriminate, bounded islands. A multiplicity of coastlines connected, reflected, glimpsed across these strips of tide. I experience each piece as both separate and connected: they resemble a sort of Instagram post, the supplementary clue to a world elsewhere, a stop beyond. The possible scroll, the anticipatory mirage of other places, beckoning like hyperlinks.
Looking at these images, I’m reminded of one of my favourite quotes from Susan Sontag’s On Photography: ‘to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt’. Many of these photographs capture landscapes from a skewed perspective, a step away from anthropo-familiarity. We may be unsure where to place our gaze, looking for a horizon or coastline. Sometimes there is a blur, a smudge of cloud and beam of light; a looming mass of weather. An almost unnatural colouring. We are forced to think in terms of diurnal shifts, glitches in time, moments of elemental transition. They are nothing like the picturesque of the brightly saturated tourism brochure, the pamphlets I flicked through idly as I waited for the ferry to Stromness. These images are ghostly, strange, a little ‘off colour’. They challenge my own memories of the unique, misty and windswept atmospheres of Orkney. Budge experimented with different cameras — digital film, iPhone, pinhole — and various chemical processes to capture a sensuous, personal perspective on her native island. She exploited the apparitional potentials of lumen printing, in which objects are positioned on light-sensitive paper and exposed for hours, never quite fully developed. Rather than ‘capturing’ or stilling, rendering her subjects, Budge allows them to unfold in their own way, symbiotically in tune with their luminous environment: stealing its shadows, imprinting a smudge, a glow of time in process. It is almost as though, in taking those photos, she performs a material empathy with climatic change on the island: the shifts in light, all external markings of geologic time and the time of seasons. I am allowed to read into this, because the images abstract from subject, they ask us to find psychic states amid landscape, they do not fetishise the specifics of locality. They do not simply state: here is a field of sheep as we, as humans, see it. They challenge us to rethink perspective, authority, subject and photographic temporality.
Jackson’s poems, which each accompany one of Budge’s images, really draw out this elemental drama of perspective, time and abstraction. Instances of familiar infrastructure become the tuning posts or sounding board for the dead, ‘Ghosts of past talking’ through telegraph poles. Attuned to the nuance of island soundscapes and landscapes, Jackson deftly parses the aesthetic reactions of one object to another, using anthropomorphism in the strategic way suggested by Jane Bennett in her book Vibrant Matter: ‘We need to cultivate,’ she argues, ‘a bit of anthropomorphism – the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature – to counter the narcissism of humans in charge of the world’. Anthropomorphism can draw out the multiplicities of sensory experience, crossing the phenomenological ‘worlds’ or ‘zones’ of various enmeshed beings and species.
The haiku might be an appropriate form for ‘capturing’ the Anthropocene because it flickers into being like a sound-bite, it contains a certain authorial anonymity, less of the singular lyric ‘I’ than the lyric I’s environed chorus. Not to mention its traditional association with ‘nature’ as such. Presented like a sort of Instagram caption beneath these images, each haiku seems a transmission from elsewhere, sparking into presence. There are several kinds of aesthetic overlay, a synaesthetic experience of scenes: ‘Glissades and rolls of eighth notes / On a summer breeze’. The smooth legato of wind stuttering up into quavers, could this be birds or the stammering tide where it sloshes in breakwater, interrupts all smoothness of lunar rhythm? I’m reminded of Kathy Hinde’s 2008 work Bird Sequencer, where she worked with Ivan Franco to scan videos of birds resting on telegraph lines into music, after noticing how much the positioning of the birds on the lines resembled a musical score. Each bird would trigger a note or audio sample from a music box and prepared piano, in the manner of a modern step-sequencer: Hinde was literalising a form of nonhuman aesthetic attunement, surrendering compositional control to the whims of the birds themselves, their arts of arrangement. That Jackson’s poetic vision parses the elemental landscape through musical metaphors says something of our ecological inclinations towards attunement. As Timothy Morton puts it:
Since a thing can’t be known directly or totally, one can only attune to it, with greater or lesser degrees of intimacy. Nor is this attunement a “merely” aesthetic approach to a basically blank extensional substance. Since appearance can’t be peeled decisively from the reality of a thing, attunement is a living, dynamic relation with another being.
Since music is our strongest metaphoric apparatus for noticing strategies of ‘attunement’, its poetic invocation allows us to access those processes of intimacy, coexistence and agency at an aesthetic level. The aesthetic level where, as Morton puts it, causality happens: an operatic voice shatters a wine glass, a match smoulders and eats up a piece of paper, the BPA in plastic seeps into the water, alters its chemical makeup, affects the food chain.
This is a fairly minimalist exhibition, despite its multisensory components. It opens space. I can take almost whatever time I want in front of the plainly mounted images and text, the white card a sort of beach I can linger on, skirting the image. These are dark and striking scenes, mostly of nonhuman subjects. I get to share in ‘time’s relentless melt’ as it happens at the pliant, archipelagic scales of an island, stripped away from the carnivalesque rhythms of urban leisure, or capitalist imperative.
Crucial to all this, of course, is Cavanagh’s sound piece. Keen to avoid the bland oceanic ambience of New Age relaxation CDs, Cavanagh makes things weirder. This is the sea but not quite the sea, nature more than nature. Composing or rendering ecological soundscapes requires more imagination these days, a keen ear towards plurality: as every ocean is inflected with both danger and precarity, a poetics of toxicity thanks to our dumping of marine plastics, there has to be an affective current underneath, a mixing of human and nonhuman rhythms, forces, pleasures and tragedies. A force of both presence and loss. Place is no longer one thing, but stamped with the stains of elsewhere. ‘Here’, as Morton puts it, ‘is shot through with there’. Living in a time of hyperobjects means that we can’t think of, say, the seas around Orkney without thinking about the pollution that comes from mainland cities, the energy generated in these waters subject to political decision-making further south, the marine populations around these coastlines affected by agricultural, infrastructural and consumption processes going on elsewhere.
It would be easy to respond to this collision of times, spaces and places with a sort of abrasive, dystopian mix of disorder. Cavanagh, however, responds to the sonic challenge with degrees of beauty, humour and playfulness. His soundscapes swirl around the spoken words of Jackson’s poems, anchoring us vaguely to a sense of present as we pass round the room, viewing the images and poems. Sure, I can hear the waves, the howl of the wind, but these are mixed with a certain distortion akin to kitsch, electronic warp and reverie that glistens with past times, feels retro. This operative aesthetic is achieved with the piece’s main component, an EMS VCS3 synthesiser from 1973: a model familiar to fans of Pink Floyd, Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream. Cavanagh’s music literally ‘translates’ Jackson’s poems and Budge’s images, themselves translations of Orkney scenery, by plugging the syllabic layout of Jackson’s haiku and the locational map data accorded to Budge’s photographs into a patchbay which generates from number sequences a variety of different rhythms, instruments and delay effects. Cavanagh’s ‘authentic’ or ‘raw’ field recordings from Orkney’s landscapes are thus programmed around the audiovisual, semantic stimuli of Budge’s and Jackson’s work. The act of remixing nature in this way exposes nature’s very artifice, a cultural construction dependent upon our aesthetic representations. I think of a very beautiful line quoted in a recent Quietus review of Hiro Kone’s new album, ‘“Nature sounds without nature sounds”’. As a challenge to passive eco-nostalgia, there is an active pleasure in this exposure, in realising the multiplicity and material vibrancy of a term we once took for background and static, mere sonic wallpaper for mindfulness meditations.
Faced with something as ineffable as the Anthropocene, we often respond, ironically, with lyric excess. The Anthropocene, it gets in edgeways, it knows we are porous. Whose odyssey is this anyway? Exhibitions like this are important because collaboration and innovation are vital means of tapping into the processes by which we, as human observers, might access nonhuman processes, glimpse the scales of time and place in a world where our significance dwindles into material trace. The fossils of future capital, always already fossils. What might a sonic fossil look like, sound like, a ghost trace of retroactive reverie, a broken sonogram, an elegiac bleep of machine or sea? An Orkney Odyssey, for all its portent towards the epic, is actually a rather humble exhibition. It offers the human perspective of memory and affect, holding wonder for these geographies and scenes, but there’s nothing too showy or sublime about it. And the micro focus is important too. Moira Buchanan’s handmade booklets draw us back to the beautiful details of wildlife around us, the simple pleasures in the act of binding and stitching the evidence of our everyday ecologies. She names in her booklets various species and places, prints poems and photos, mingles materials. There’s a real material enchantment here. Rather cutely, I wrote of these booklets before in a post on Buchanan’s 2016 exhibition, All Washed Up:
I think in today’s world, where global warming feels like something vast, incomprehensible, beyond our understanding, it’s so important to focus on the little things. The material details that remind us that we are part of this environment, that the ocean gives back what we put into it. There’s a feeling of salvage to the pieces, whose composition seems to perfectly balance the artful openness to chance at the same time as reflecting a careful attention to arrangement and applied form and texture.
I was still grappling with the Anthropocene with a sort of innocence then. I mean, I was still calling it global warming. The booklets in South Block catch the light of a late September afternoon, luminous in the window. Taking pictures of them, I can’t get the angle or the light right. I can’t quite translate, my iPhone proximate to its physical extinction, stubbornly refusing photographic clarity. During my trip to Munich this year, I was given a five-leaf clover picked from a lovely Bavarian meadow. I pressed it between the pages of Lisa Robertson’s The Weather. That, I suppose, was an act of salvage also. Symbolic recycling. A little token of some unspoken odyssey.
Unsure of the rest of the night, what to do, awaiting replies, I cycle through rush hour, heading south with only vague destination. Peddling hard, I cross the water as though crossing the sea. Later I will fall asleep with electronic sounds rasping my headphones, mixing with the wind outside which batters the window, until sleep becomes its own causality…
Venue: South Block, 60-64 Osborne Street, Glasgow, G1 5QH
Exhibition Continues: 14th September – 5th October 2018 (Mon Fri 9-5).
I love alcohol, the gloaming of the blood that makes time an arcade.
Somehow, lately, I have been unable to drink myself into drunkenness. Everything is a spritzer whose taste effervesces like the further most points of the sea at sunset, those glisters of peachy waters which seem almost to fizz beneath the pleasure of light. To think of that expanse as the body’s active limit, like the horizons of video games, whose traversal would teleport you back to some familiar, originary location. Flip away. Endpoints as triggers for reversal. To travel outwards, to raise yourself clean into movement. To make of the body its own hypothetical. It’s like I want only the blueprint potential, the colours and geometries.
The waves move against me. I do not drink.
Queue, Free Love (FKA Happy Meals) ‘Pushing Too Hard’. This ultra-dappled, smiley-faced italo-disco is a sort of vertigo. I mean I am spinning silver in its listening. Emptiness requires its own containment. To dance in parallels then pirouettes, to queue time upon time’s arabesque. To oooooze. The little eddies of the ocean still swallowing, the sun ravelling down like residue soda. Whatever direction you make into ceremony, pleasure.
The bunching of muscle, where sun hits the boulevard. Where the boulevard bursts into its many discographies of water, inclined to times beyond and before, a gradient popularity of passengers and travellers, nomadic ravers. Where the boulevard is not a waypoint but the lengthy stretch of hypnosis itself, an astral plane into sunlit ethers.
The very word boulevard, a sort of ferric opulence unfolding a hazy, urban sprawl.
All of this wayward July, and the synths so warm on my skin, and every conversation a twirl of hyperbole. I wanted nothing of night again, as night was just the day’s refresh and erasure. All through the summer, the air so syrup and seething.
I book the overnight ferry, I dream of a world without timetables. The tide sloshes over me and it is sleepless, and it is heat.
This is rich-text. All of oddness. I’m just so much happier at four in the morning, in the priory of sunrise. Missing you.
Cherish the currency of friendship, however the slightest touch is a glorious misreading. Miss reading, I’m missing. Mist between the one and the two and same, faintness of incense that is. The body unshowered, the mist of heat. The endless messaging dew drops of moisture; your pearly brow is beautiful. It isn’t as though you could shift sentences for me. I’m just as weak.
Suzanne Roden of Free Love sings sometimes in French and slips between two languages, the language of the one and the other, the foreign tongue as love in transition. The lively nuance of melodic translation. To stretch meaning, to make of its pulse the possibly unmappable. We listen and maybe we don’t quite need to understand, we just need the potential of passage, its affective route per semantic reach. Glossing Derrida on love, Maria-Daniella Dick and Julian Wolfreys write thus:
Love calls on us to be responsible in coming to map the unmappable, to be open to the possibility of the impossible, and the possibility of this impossible experience is that, in short, which is between us, and which remains: to come. Love is always just this exemplary passage between tongues, in what is foreign, other in the language one calls one’s own.
There is a healthy cascade of reverie. There is browse and incline, click and encryption. The love that you seek. Every pop song is of course love’s expression, the fluid joy of a ~solid~ ego; and yet to map that point of dissolve in which this ego is the melt-point of ipseity’s porous limit, is that not the deferring impulse of disco? Strike through to jouissance. The repetitive beat, the multiple oscillating climaxing motion; the avoidance of pop’s inevitable, normative denouement; the queerish musing deliciously around fulfilment; the rhizomatic overflow of the senses!
Stay mercurial, baby. In cool arousal, in sluicing.
‘But I love you despite the boring terrorism / of particularity / fading like parity’ (Keston Sutherland).
Your forehead is hot. It is glass for the shattering. We are fashionable and hackneyed, practicing lunacy where the beats scream and are again crass in their lust and elation, their confinement to time and place and the pulse of this darkness.
When my irises bleed, is this a form of eschewing the present? As in, swallowing an elsewhere unseen to the other? We see our eyes outside, in the comedown glow of street lamp smoulders. We the parts of our bodies as an archipelago, every isle slowly swallowed by rising water.
This tectonic pulse, this encompassing warmth.
You’re pushing too hard. And so language is physical, and so is literally thrust in, into, the armoury of love. I will not say weapon, I will not reduce a necessary plural to the singular tool, the implied signified of the phallus. The piercing. My eyes become pliant.
Make of the air her dulcet voice, over and over like rain’s refusal. Make of this moment a lightness, a smoothing. Trace little bumps and ripples and glitches; the motion is softcore, resplendent’s true sense.
Love is also the coveting of blindspots, those absent locations of self’s abyss which lie adjacent to the lieux de memoire recognised as the sites of love’s memory, of memory’s happening in love. Love as process of betweening, as immersion. A feel-good, a good feeling. The prolonging of ephemeral sensation in an act of imaginary narrative, its plights and highs and necessary zigzags. Act within capitalism, act without; act as pop’s dazzling detournement. So here by the convenience store we kissed, so here by the river; so at the window we shared cigarettes in a friend’s apartment, by the ersatz palms, so these screens between us, so the niche forums that served as our weird, oblique interface; so here where the road slumps into a junction, so here at the station where you had to go. A whole topography of abstract thought, remix it. Drink it. So memories of mountains, so sharing the lakes we made up in memory; that you swam in, the lakes I walked round as a child, the heather on hills where ashes were scattered. This interface, these blue messages. Blue irises. The shape of a letter impressed on a map. The silent valley, its conclusive basin of time; where life is swallowed. I memorialise a thought, the quality of light in August, its paler gold among green; whose green is mortal again, whose green is set to fade. Your pupils resolve all green of the iris to blindspots, they mop up the blue with the black of sleep. And to sleep as equals is to forget the self, to wake in a room between rooms, to find yourself caught as other again, your room unfamiliar, the room never yours even less so now. The very first utterance of morning might break the spell. How the sky looks different through your open, solar window!
And I’m not the one to help you / Although I’d like to tryyyyy.
Clatter and wave, video game imperative to action and motion. Soundtrack the heat. Make reverie of weather. The production is so acid house. The production inclines toward dance. Externalise the internal. Naturalise the natural. A certain elasticity of underlying beat, as if bass were the hum of the blood that produces affect. As if it were all that reducible. As if in that energy. Make our mammalian restraint ethereal.
The Quietussays of Free Love’s music, ‘Their vision is a utopian one, influenced by rave culture, Eastern religions, politics and magic’. To unhinge love from its possessive sense, love becomes an ambient tone in the spread of the days between days which we count in love, if love is a sense as any other, an orientation between things, between selves, the one and the same. If love is something… that something within us must export to numbers. How many days has it been, I’ve been thinking all week… Here are our figures. Crunch on a sort of krautrock lingering, the impersonality at the heart of euphoria’s insistent heat. Free Love have used drones before, meditative, balearic beats. It’s a process of seeking the nuanced frequency, the cleaner hum of Being, what might spread into an open future, something bright to seize. Design your consciousness for different realms, just feel the synaesthesia of speculative situation. The future’s flirtatious, maybe it speaks French. It’s a bright pink, cherry-red electric French.
In his spectacular tome, More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction (1998), Kodwo Eshun talks of how the subaquatic techno-duo Drexciya ‘fictionalise frequencies into sound pictures of unreal environments […]. They fictionalise the psychoacoustic volume of a giant submersible’. ‘Pushing Too Hard’ implies a current out of sync with its destination, an unbalancing in the passage between entities. A kinetic effort. Disco’s warm flicker invites that spiralling back to aporia; not a giving up in the sense of seduction’s failure, so much as surrender to the unknown and its cheeky, distinctive flourishes of acid, italo, proto-house all drenched in funk. I don’t pretend to understand French; my language is literally standard grade, processed only to that limit.
But I pick up some terms Suzanne sings:
L’avenir: future, future, future, promise. To come up. Insistent, proximity, imminent. A cool bitten ecstasy, a love to-come. Love in the conditional, although I’d like to tryyyyy. Those airy harmonies cascade around chiasmic, sunshine flourishes. Love’s duration at 4:18.
Plastique: plastic. What seems elastic, mutable, but is in some sense unerasable—a material that ultimately remains. Residuals. Shards, bits. When ‘Pushing Too Hard’ collapses into its A-side twin, ‘July’, the beats are fatter, darker, hotter—brooding with a sense of summer’s latency as always already. The plastic feeling is inside me, it’s a melting, it’s a coming-into-skin. Sonic duplicity. It’s the Anthropocenic hauntology of organs, it’s a PVC drag of natural sensation. It necessitates dancing, but the percussive chimes in the track’s white-heat centre drag my mind from the present’s solidity. Those chimes are airy, they are elsewhere, enchanted; they are so far removed from the close close city. To be fast and slow, hard and soft, selfish and strong, reflected and present, past and future…Being as syncopation, being as plastic, rent to split. Our lapidary imaginaries, our synthesised clicks of pleasure; a pool of sound, an immersion…I’ve come to relax, to realise.
Visage: face. A word whose very sound is that of sunlight hitting clean the bounce of a mirror, a slide into silver. The waspish vibration of the lips, inclined to glass on the brink of shatter. I think of all those mirror tricks in every ABBA video. The face, the face, the face again. The face we effect. Maria Dick and Julian Wolfreys again: ‘Seeing the face in its absolute and irrecusable singularity, I am given to apprehend a doubleness from the first gaze’. Disco is doubleness inherently split to multiplicity, it is the vying for one attention amidst the millioning of other skins (skins becoming a metonymy of figures, faces), it is the shakeaway of self into other, the imitation, the performance of gesture’s contextual plurality. The face, in Emmanuel Lévinas’ sense, is the announcement of subjectivity: the instating of the subject as a sort of ‘hostage’, as Dick and Wolfreys gloss. It demands a response, stealing the attentions of the self, instating by necessity a certain ethics of wholly Otherness: the human face, as Lévinas puts it, ‘orders and ordains us’. I catch your face on the dancefloor, there is a temporary pact between us. What implicitly slides in the raising of one arm, the twist of hips, copying this dance, a Xeroxing event whose zero-sum origin remains irreducible, whose condition is always undecidable, plural. So far so obvious the ontology of rave culture. Every action now as response. A semi-autonomous severing. Technology can be, as Eshun puts it, a ‘bifurcation in time’. The techno throbbing through the pale membranes of my human sense is a channel for split subjectivity, an experience of falling between worlds.
On the dancefloor, when he asks me what to do, I whisper in his ear, in some half-remembered echo from The Bell Jar: ‘pretend that you are drowning’. And that paranoid panic, that scramble for air in the thrust of the limbs, it seems to work. I see the moisture mist up his glasses. Face after face, we glimpse the phenomenology of substitution, we trade our own affect for the possible electricity of the next. His smile, her hair, our collective sweat. The absurdity of all these moves; the warping of all muscle memory inclined to a known rhythm, then ever the melodic trajectory of an unknown palette. We expose our infinite vulnerability, we abstract ourselves to the dancefloor’s disorderly hospitality, where the reciprocal push-pull of crowd and DJ is a mutual reading and so mutual dissolve, a ‘free love’ whose freedom is conditional on the exchange of gesture, face and motion, of bass, beat and melody. Of sonic and visionary qualities. Of closeness, a close reading.
I imagine my skin looks metallic, right now, as you see it.
Groove is when overlapping patterns of rhythm interlock, when beats syncromesh until they generate an automotion effect, an inexorable, effortless sensation which pushes you from behind until you’re funky like a train. To get into the Groove is to lock into the polyrhythmotor, to be adapted by a fictionalised rhythm engine which draws you on its own momentum.
Is fiction here the condition for identity’s erasure? We hustle ourselves out of ordinary language, slip into the chug and pulse of the train. Okay so all these bodies in motion. To export yourself to the techne of musical condition. Fold in the overlap, a baroque philosophy of subjectivity’s production. Enter heterotopia with both hope and scepticism. Put away your wallet. Fold yourself. There’s Deleuze’s notion of the fold as a doubling: one thought rolled and pressed into another, the scratch of tobacco in cigarette papers, the promise of chemical stimulation imbibed in the skin, the curlicues of words upon screen and page, the unlocking potential of semiotics in motion. A rolling into, an overlay’s careful pleat of impression and meaning. The duplicity of temporalities in photographic exposure. This tongue curled on a foreign one, the blendable play between French and English, a play between verse and chorus. A recursively mutual translation of inside/outside, the self and other, here and there, near and distant; a translation whose very process belies the instability and futility of such ontological divisions. We relate to ourselves as production, we produce ourselves. But don’t look at me / I’m just as weak. The face that desires, amid over-stimulation, the reserve of hiddenness, the retreat. Subjectivity as a question of mastery, self-relation, processing affect, thought and memory in the world’s abundance, intensified in the sonic duration of a pop song, or in the ever-churning lieux de memoire of a dancefloor, where memory is always in oscillation, caught between bodies and beats. And the magic in that, and the heat.
Every melody’s upswing, a new euphoria: ‘Synchronicity’. Left my ego on the ground. Make of identity its fractal components in disco extension, plugin auroras of thought, the perspectives shifting. Suzanne’s voice spliced between echo and harmony, echoed by Free Love’s other half, Lewis, echoed by her own, echoed by the satisfactions of division’s fall back into rhythm, the tightness of synchronicity. Turn me upside down / I don’t know what’s left in front of me. Resonate, resonate. Duplicity kaleidoscopes originary identity as an always receding, elusive location, infinite addiction. Broken glass, symmetry, the one and the same split shard-ways, a cool euphony of a synthetic present cast ever between past and future; the neuromuscular necessity of this beat, this bodily response; hyperstition; this brainwave as process corrosion, as shimmer and sweet, as almost coincidence.
Disclaimer: my middle name is Rose. This means nothing, as far as I’m aware. I have never received roses for Valentines (as far as I’m aware). What follows comprises an essay on what a rose is a song is a word is a rose(?), feat. the likes of Gertrude Stein, Idlewild, Oscar Wilde, Joyce, Yeats, the French Symbolists and Lana Del Rey…
Despite having two degrees in literary studies, a lot of my more convincing intellectual references were first encountered through music, not books. The Manic Street Preachers’ Holy Bible album introduced me to Foucault, Plath, Ballard, Nietzsche, Mailer and Pinter in one fell, aggressive swoop of a Richey Edwards lyric barked over the guttural shudder of Nicky Wire’s bass-lines. Gertrude Stein, the awkward goddess of modernism, first came to me via an Idlewild song—deep in some distant vestige of the noughties, when I still bought CDs. She’s mentioned in ‘Roseability’, the last single to be taken from the band’s 2000 breakthrough, 100 Broken Windows. It’s a typically angsty track, reflecting on the futility of being dissatisfied with the present and finding pathetic solace in the past: “stop looking through scrapbooks and photograph albums / because I know they won’t teach you what you don’t already know”. Say it and already you know, right? ‘Roseability’, like ‘Idlewild’, is a compound word, a mashing of nouns that seems to promise deep meaning as its very premise. But where is it pointing us? What of Stein and what of her roses?
Stein’s famous quote on roses, ‘Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’, seems to do two things. Firstly, it indicates an essentialist perspective on semantics—circularity conveying the uselessness of further description. Secondly, it enacts a qualitative echo chamber by which the reader must question what constitutes this essence, this roseness which is the rose’s identity. The repetition suggests the elusiveness of this essence, deferring with dreamy assertion—the kind of beautiful aphorism you might coin on an acid trip, completely sure of your own new logic. There’s a sense, with every ‘rose’, of meaning’s possibility blooming. You want to wrap the sentence in a circle (as Stein did, selling the phrase on plates) and close a precious loop, devoid of full stops and fixed meanings. Is a rose a rose or the space between a rose and what a rose is? Swap Saussurian triangles for sweet hips and sepals, a new rose budding in the roots. Lose all fixity for the chance trellising of structure, turn attention to sunlight, rainfall, temperature and other environmental conditions. Acquire tautologies and promise of spring. A rose is a whorl, a loop; a delicate head so heady with beauty. Humans like roses share beds sometimes. Look too long into the corolla and maybe you’ll lose your mind.
Idlewild: the secluded meeting place in L. M. Montgomery’s 1908 novel, Anne of Green Gables Idlewild: the original name of John F. Kennedy International Airport in NYC Idlewild: to idle wildly; to wildly idle; to idly go wilding.
“You’ll always be, dissatisfied.” Perhaps the mere act of flicking through memories is a form of idle wilding. Making a wilderness of memory’s stasis. Depart only at airports; dwell between continental impressions of kisses.
100 Broken Windows marks a turn in Idlewild’s direction: from their 1990s brit-pop/punk roots to a more spacious, ambitious sound, influenced by the likes of The Smiths, The Wedding Present and R.E.M. When I first started listening to Idlewild, 12 or more years ago in those tender, pre-adolescent times, I sort of filed them as the Scottish version of Ash: they had that punk sensibility coloured by stadium choruses and a cheeky pop strain that balanced the anxious lamenting aspects. All sincerity, sure, but the lyrics were sharp enough to lift them from the sentimental pitfalls of subsequent contemporaries—the end of alt. history that was ‘Hey There Delilah’. Here we move into screaming emo or post-hardcore as inherent hauntology of the fuzzy rock club: the bourbon and sweat, the greasy hair, the frank, shuffling indifference of stoner punters. There were words that smouldered, sparked, then extinguished in the wind; but Idlewild had something different, a primitive attunement to human sorrow that cut through the gum-snapping cool of postmodern irony games, even as its affect blew up in a drumbeat or solo, the loquacious, Michael Stipe angst of Roddy Woomble’s voice. Think sonorous violins and a solid rock chorus, all the energy and wit being typically Scottish. Like the Manics before them, Idlewild did punk and guitar pop, did the stylised mosh and generic fusion, did the political and personal. The millennial malaise in their songs was very much of the times even as it seemed already tired of them:
It’s a better way to feel When you’re not real, you’re postmodern (It’s not that one dimensional, it’s not the only thought)
Cut out all feeling, except wait. There’s more. We don’t have to languish in the paralysing grunge of the nineties. The drama of strings would grace each melody electric and maybe you’ll find historic truth in this plugged-in homage to folk turned on its head. If postmodernism is a Mobius strip of self-referentiality, that recursive collapse of linear progress (figured as a Scalextric set in the video for Idlewild’s ‘These Wooden Ideas’), then how to find meaning again, to find sense at all? Stand in a doorway and find yourself blasted with void fill, flick grapes in a wastebasket, count up your demons for the old stoned longing. Shrivel like raisins. The turn of the century has already happened, but maybe if you surrender to the chorus you’ll feel less jaded. There’s a reassurance. The thing about choruses, after all, is that they repeat.
As it does with choruses, algorithms and perennial blooms, repetition happens a lot in Tender Buttons,Stein’s infamously cluttered collection of prose poetics. With repetition and modulation, a queering of standard grammar, everyday objects become less the tools which underpin human existence, and instead things in themselves—the wasteful artefacts in excess of definition. Paratactical, concatenating assemblages which entangle like vines or else accumulate. Grapes on the carpet, styrofoam littering the floor, a word or two oozing through the backdoor…Am I far too close to the things I mistrust? Maybe there is always a stammering, a stilted stilling. I buy roses for the restaurant in which I work and the very act drags me into heteronormative time: the time of expensive dates, birthdays, weddings, funerals, candlelit dinners. What preference for the deep, luxurious, elusive bloom? Must lovers cut their tongues on thorns? I wonder, do those erect stems contribute their strange teleology…to what, to what…are roses always in excess of themselves—showering petals, shedding, being ever so much just roses?
“I stopped and waited for progress”. Back in the day (2005), the NME rated Idlewild ‘a stolid group of trad guitar manglers’, whose new single ‘Roseability’ served ‘both as a rabbit-punch to the head of agnostics and a celebratory three-and-a-half minutes of safe, predictable, wholly generic, utterly brilliant rock ‘n’ roll.’ It makes me dewy-eyed to remember the magazine’s honest, scathing days. That insouciant, throwaway cool. Music criticism was pretty brutal when I grew up, and you basically had to tick every indie rock’n’roll formula (hello Alex Turner: snake-hips, haircut etc) to get consistently decent reviews. Or you could nail the attention on some eccentricity (The Horrors), or perhaps mediocre throwback to rock’n’roll times gone by (need I name every white boy indie suspect circa 2007). ‘Roseability’ is how it feels to be in your twenties, surrounded by people looking backwards; not quite in anger, but in nostalgia. It’s been a long time since I’ve considered something new as ‘utterly brilliant rock ’n’ roll’ in the transcendent sort of way Idlewild pull off—hardcore guitars, thrashing drums, literary references and all. Sweetness and thorns. Uneasy noise secretion. Tip your hat at tradition and then blast through the chorus, scatter your petals to cover the seams. What words in ‘Sacred Emily’ follow the roses? ‘Loveliness extreme’. I miss the NME, I miss being young enough to get lost this easily.
To veer into Idlewild itself, let’s wallow in passages from Anne of Green Gables:
You know that little piece of land across the brook that runs up between our farm and Mr. Barry’s. It belongs to Mr. William Bell, and right in the corner there is a little ring of white birch trees–the most romantic spot, Marilla. Diana and I have our playhouse there. We call it Idlewild. Isn’t that a poetical name? I assure you it took me some time to think it out. I stayed awake nearly a whole night before I invented it. Then, just as I was dropping off to sleep, it came like an inspiration. Diana was enraptured when she heard it. We have got our house fixed up elegantly. You must come and see it, Marilla–won’t you? We have great big stones, all covered with moss, for seats, and boards from tree to tree for shelves. And we have all our dishes on them. Of course, they’re all broken but it’s the easiest thing in the world to imagine that they are whole.
That endearing, childish hyperbole, the absolute thrill of invention. The special grove in a ring of white birch trees, heart of the circle, the rose’s secret pistil. Place of germination. Fragments congeal as expansive imaginings, disappointment evaporates in hope.
“Gertrude Stein said that’s enough”. I’m not quite sure how Roddy Woomble, Idlewild’s lead singer, intended the Stein namedrop, but I take it as a reference to her poems’ weird loops of recursion. In the video for ‘Roseability’, Stein’s portraits are hung up all over the room; her face is even on the front of the kick drum, looking all knowing and stately. The video’s aesthetic has the feel of a 90s television set, all pop art circles whose colour has faded, sharp swivelling camera angles and hair swishes. The pop iconography of teenagers flooding the room with their plastic bracelets, braided hair and awkward moshing. It would be totally American if not painfully, most Britishly sincere—I mean just look at how the guitarist crushes into his own instrument, how Woomble wipes sweat off his face, paces around with the mic so close it could feel his breath. Loveliness extreme. When this was released, I wasn’t even a teenager. When I finally see him live, it’s in a church hall in Maryhill 2k17 and it’s utterly beautiful: how generous the set-list, how gracious a frontman with his small-talk and nods to the band, his thank yous. Watching the kids in the ‘Roseability’ video recreates that weird oscillation between feeling old and seeing in their faces the bizarreness of MTV ennui: the ghost of what I would temporarily become at thirteen, fourteen; cladding myself in discount Tammy girl, then Topshop, dying my hair pink and donning studded collars. With the hormones, you lose that ecstatic childhood imaginary hope; desire is amorphous and endlessly droning. You close your eyes and it seems the world has already ended. Sometimes it comes back, sometimes not. Maybe roseability simply means innocence.
‘Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself’ (Woolf). But customers rarely do. It’s up to me to ornament a room, to flourish a mood, to mark some milestone in another life that’s not mine, whose linearity’s not mine.
My mother bought rose-coloured roses for my eighteenth birthday, blush pink. Red when I turned twenty-one. I stopped acting sweet and rosy, dyed my hair red too. Fell through the whorls, the plush abyss.
‘Roseability’: the ability to be of roses, for roses to exist? Sensibility is, according to my laptop’s built-in dictionary, ‘the quality of being able to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences; sensitivity’. Does roseability denote a similar sensitivity? When we think of roses we think often of Englishness: that angelic Laura Marling figure, a garlanded Bronte heroin, Paul Weller’s ‘English Rose’. We think tenderness, pastoral, a certain enclosure (marriage, gardens?) and guaranteed loveliness. She who coils golden hair round her porcelain finger, who knows how to talk to sheepdogs, who paints watercolours of the dawn. We think Shakespeare—‘a rose by any name would smell as sweet’. But we also think north of the border, a little bit of the visceral made kitsch: Robert Burns’ ‘my love is like a red, red rose’, whose unfortunate fate is to garnish every dishtowel bought on your granny’s last visit to Alloway (Roddy Woomble, perhaps not incidentally, is also an Ayrshire lad). The faint rose scent in a golden cologne, mingled with tobacco; the glistering sweetness of a youthful, drugstore perfume. Roses are roses, but roses are so many things, are poised on the lips of also…
The rose is a complex flower, a perennial whose species number over 100. Roses are typically ornamental, grown by those who know what cultivation means and spend their Septembers clipping away the thorny remains. An old man round the corner from my flat is out in all weathers among soil and stem: grafting, trimming, tilling for his roses. Perhaps he loves them more than his children. In summer, walking home on warm evenings you can smell them in the pale ambrosial air, a delicate bounty. If properly cared for, roses can live a long time, perhaps over and over, perhaps forever…what exactly does perennial mean?
The appropriately named Bloom, in James Joyce’s Ulysses, stands on Cumberland Street and opens a letter from Martha Clifford—a woman who responded to his newspaper ad requesting a typist. The Dublin postal system facilitates a sort of illicit exchange between them. Half-rhyme, consonance: petal/letter. The delicate thrill of letterly infidelity. She wants to know ‘what kind of perfume does your wife use’; the animal possession of scent. She attaches to her letter a flower, slightly crushed:
He tore the flower gravely from its pinhold smelt its almost no smell and placed it in his heart pocket. […] walking slowly forward he read the letter again, murmuring here and there a word. Angry tulips with you darling manflower punish your cactus if you don’t please poor forgetmenot how I long violets to dear roses when we soon anemone meet all naughty nightstalk wife Martha’s perfume. […] Fingering still the letter in his pocket he drew the pin out of it. […] Out of her clothes somewhere: pinned together. Queer the number of pins they always have. No roses without thorns.
So many compound words, clustering in the mouth like so many attaché petals peeled off from a dress. He plucks them away, fingers the soft excitement of words: ‘naughty nightstalk wife’ with the luridly alliterative twist of fantasy. Libido vs. loss of life. What slips away with the pin? What does the pin pin together? Folds and creases, sleepless. Spike of cactus, nasty, phallic. Prick. Tulip. Coiled anemone: wild flower or tentacular sea creature? Connotations of slip. In her slip. Slippery. Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams, waxing lyrical about female genitalia:
I thought of what seemed to me a venturesome explanation of the hidden meaning of the apparently quite asexual word violets by an unconscious relation to the French viol. But to my surprise the dreamer’s association was the English word violate. The accidental phonetic similarity of the two words violet and violate is utilised by the dream to express in ‘the language of flowers’ the idea of the violence of defloration (another word which makes use of flowersymbolism), and perhaps also to give expression to a masochistic tendency on the part of the girl. — An excellent example of the word bridges across which run the paths to the unconscious.
Dear roses dear romance; violets are pale taste of childhood’s sweet naivety. Violets are blue and so are you. Things you can take away. Lines of flight, tangled stems and botanical echoes. Semantics. Lingering taste. The burgeoning rhizomes of the greedy unconscious. Lana Del Rey: “there are roses in between my thighs / and a fire that surrounds you”. The Metro calls it a ‘shocking new track’, but I’ve never heard anything so languid and dreamy and in love. Hungry. Sugar is sweet and…
Angela Carter’s roses bite, don’t you? In ‘The Lady of the House of Love’, the self-starving somnambulist—the ‘beautiful queen of the vampires’—is a figure for desire’s recursive, self-destructive appetite. Manifest as addiction, or withdrawal; the flesh-shedding lust of anorexia, its resistance to growth and fuel. ‘She herself is a cave full of echoes, she is a system of repetitions, she is a closed circuit’. Her dialogue billows round and round into absence. Like Stein’s rose, she is bound to the noun and the grammar of herself—the flickering inward structures of mind, matter.The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants. Clustering rootlets, trapped yearnings for impossible perfection. No rose can be the perfect rose; except perhaps Stein’s rose: the virtual rose at the end of the looping rainbow. Loopy, lupin, lupine, luminal. Devouring, emanating, alluring. The virtual rose, perfect by its very impossibility, like Mallarmé’s Book. So many leaves and words. The stain of ink and rain, imprinted teeth. Carter again: ‘I leave you as a souvenir the dark, fanged rose I plucked from between my thighs, like a flower laid on a grave’. Those intoxicating roses, like Carter’s baroque, coruscating prose, cascade across the page, the white snow, the grave. La petit mort. In every petal the promise of a word, a breath.
Roseability. Faith in the unknowingness that is adulthood’s full blooming. Desire’s maturity bound in nostalgia, that noxious plague of your twenties; the ‘sense sublime’ of Wordsworth, five years later, experiencing ‘something far more deeply interfused’. Like the rose’s corolla, time rolls both round and onwards. It’s nauseating, an almost vortex. You’re always chasing that inward spirit, the thing that burns regardless: “They won’t teach you / what you don’t already know”—don’t Idlewild know it?
“There is no roseability.” Enduring, complicated, hungry and sweet, it’s no surprise that roses are symbols for romantic love. Oh hallowed, protected cliché. Expensive hotels strew red roses on white bedsheets, a look that is oddly funereal. Share the ephemeral with melting chocolates. Reminiscent of menses, the blot of a clot in time. He got shot. She bled freely. Blood is like iron, a sharp metallic taste. What do roses taste of? What kinds of symbolic immersion might get at the essence? A bathtub of roses, a bedspread, a bouquet exploding for wedding celebration. Petals of confetti; a blossoming, artificial effect. White roses can be purity, lightness and marriage; or maybe undying love in death, restoration of innocence. I love you as the snowfall that closes Joyce’s ‘The Dead’. Sitting on the languid banks of a river in June, desecrating a rose with your sorrow: one petal, he likes me, two petals, he likes me not. Enough petals to fill a river, all the world’s worth of unrequited love. Red upon red upon blue. Flowing, felt in the blood. But no river is ever twice the same, no rose identical, no inflorescence—despite the algorithmic genius of plants—symmetrical. The beauty of roses comprises their subtly unique detail. ‘Lesser’ flowers, mere ornaments to weeds, clutter up close in mutual similarity. Maybe’s Gatsby’s Daisy could be anybody—she just had to be sweet and blonde, smelling of the damp rich old world, ersatz fresh, ready to decorate. The colourful shirts were mere petals for the true dark rose of his longing. Did Gatsby have blue eyes? I can’t remember.
I did a hard-drive search for the phrase ‘blue rose’ and found an old flash fiction piece I wrote years ago, called ‘Watercolours’. An extract:
The garden fills with new light; conscious light, collecting a clarity not quite recognised. The roses have left their earthly bodies, and the worms burrow up through the untilled soil. The roses’ spirits lift the leaves from the trees and scatter them like sloughing flakes of a giant’s skin. A sigh escapes the sultry violets, the ones he captured once by mixing blue and red. The red poppy is a pretty thing, but she is unborn yet. A mulch of memory overturns as day decides to end.
Isn’t it strange, the seduction of fairy tale ecomimesis? Nature’s ekphrasis surrendering effortlessly to the same saccharine motifs; the kitsch aesthetic containing within its insistence a certain artifice, then the theatrical mists of deliberate illusion. I think of watercolours and I think of everything blurring. Colours decay in the rain, or do they saturate? And again, the roses and violets, whores and madonnas? What of the feminising of botany’s blushing ornaments, ‘captured’ by a (male) artistic vision? But time is ever more flowing, desire afloat, liquid and trembling as rain. What would it mean to anthropomorphise roses, to imbue them with certain abilities? Roseability. These would be the most precious roses, the memorialising and future-making symbols. The blue ones.
I also found a piece from 2013 titled ‘Blue Roses’ It’s about a botanical garden famous for its sky-coloured flowers. The narrator’s lover, Richard, laments the death of his mother and talks about what it would be like to be a carnivore plant. The narrator says: ‘“Those long, slow deaths would suck out your soul.”’ Was I reading Carter at the time? Nature (always capitalise to denaturalise) in this story is narcissistic, strange, devouring: stars are ‘aware of themselves’, the twilight forms deliberate ‘geometric patterns’, the rain ‘spilled out in oozing puddles that clogged the scum of the pavement’. Security patrol the blue roses in the glasshouses. It isn’t entirely clear what they mean in the story. Symbols for what? Eliding natural selection, these monstrous flowers blur into nothing but blueness—the exotic quantity, intangible mystery, possible infinitude. Despite the wholesomeness of the tale, I couldn’t help but think of the weird erotic undertones of its spooky botany. Blue rose, blue movie.
So yes, the very phrase ‘blue rose’ denotes something exceptional in Nature (in Twin Peaks, a ‘blue rose’ case is one which involves supernatural elements). In Tennessee Williams’ play, The Glass Menagerie, Laura (a character based on Williams’ mentally ill sister, the aptly named Rose) is nicknamed ‘Blue Roses’ on account of her fragility, her spiritual affinity with that which transcends the ordinary (and a childhoood attack of pleurosis). Laura dwells in a surreal version of reality; her very nickname harks back to André Breton’s ‘First Surrealist Manifesto’: ‘Cet été les roses sont bleues’ (this summer the roses are blue). Things have reversed and in their delirium remain quite beautiful. Roses, blue or not, are associated with a certain precious wavering between worlds both spiritual and physical; worlds crossed only by rare occurrences of romance, imagination, memory. He loves me, he loves me not…Laura is obsessed with a little glass unicorn, symbol of mythology, virginity. Preservations of the body for another world, or from another world? I go into the woods and find fairy rings made from small white flowers (I think of the inverse fable of extreme depression, the harp-sparkling Manics’ track, ‘Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky’). While there is a lovely joy to the common daisy or meadow flower—an ethereal quality that recalls our initiating buttercup crushes—the deep lust of Romance must be associated with the scarlet plumage of the rose. Love is calculated on decadence, exception.
Is a rose as shatterable as glass, as a heart?
I used to live in a house called ‘Daisybank’, but my friends always teased because there were roses painted onto the window, not daisies. What weird reverse supplement? The fat white dog daisies would spring up on the front lawn in summer, but they were always overlooked by those glassy roses. There’s a certain authority, majesty even, to the rose. You associate it with tragedy and great beauty: Lana Del Rey with her lips stuffed full with a rose, playing the calamitous heroine. Snow-White and Rose-Red. Shakespeare’s ‘a rose by any name would smell as sweet’ is taken from Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet convinces Romeo that it matters not that his name, Montague, is her family’s rival house. A rose is a rose; regardless of name it will always come up smelling of roses. Having graduated from Daisybank, I now find myself living on Montague Street…
‘Who dreamed that beauty passes like a dream?’ This is W. B. Yeats, probably writing to a woman he loved, Maud Gonne. He seems to set up beauty as life’s eternal opposite; where human existence is fleeting, beauty remains archetypal, enduring. Think of Keats’ ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’. There’s a universality, a mythological underpinning to this beauty. In Yeats’ poem, the loved one embodies wistful figures of glory: Helen of Troy and Usna of ancient Irish history. Surely she slips between the shadows of comparison? Whether Yeats scorns the idea that beauty ‘passes like a dream’, or whether he ultimately reveals its truth, is unclear.
For Immanuel Kant (see, Critique of Judgement), the experience of beauty hinges on a paradox: since it seems that beauty is a property of the object—indeed, emanates from it—you’d think beauty itself was universal. Everyone should fall in love with that painting, that colour, that song. But not everyone does find the same things beautiful. It feels like a betrayal of reality when I play Radiohead’s ‘True Love Waits’ (where roses are swapped for “lollipops and crisps”) to a friend and their reaction is a casual ‘meh’ and a shrug, while all sorts of biochemical reactions of wonder and euphoria are swirling around inside me. Beauty, for Kant, is largely nonconceptual: that is, there’s an unspeakable quality to it, a thing you can’t put your finger on. In Realist Magic, Timothy Morton describes it as beauty’s ‘je ne sais quoi’. Being unable to pin down what it is that makes a thing beautiful is part of its beauty. You take a rose. You could describe its petals, its inward swirling whorls, its scarlet colour, the slenderness of its stem; but in doing so, you lose the rose itself. As ever in synecdochically applauding a woman you lose the woman. The love object. The love? Recall Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’? ‘Love is not love’; it’s what it is and it isn’t, and what’s left over as forever. 4Eva/4Real. Personally, I prefer Cate Le Bon’s take: “Love is not love / When it’s a coat hanger / A borrowed line or passenger”. But isn’t everything stolen and temporary, in transit? How do you claw back the rose when the rose, maybe, is just this epic symbol for love? What moves in the static eternity?
I used to draw roses all the time; I’d always start in the centre, finding my way outwards with liquid ink. You see I had no conception of the rose’s shape, I was just following the shaky trajectories of layering lines. Important not to excise too sharply the arrangement of beauty, to impart onto nonhuman forms a reified taste. Eroticism preserved by ellipsis, meditation contained in the mysterious code of the senses. What was it Wordsworth said so long ago, in his famous tract against book knowledge: ‘Sweet is the lore which Nature brings; / Our meddling intellect / Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:— / We murder to dissect’. Wordsworth would prefer you to go out and encounter the objects themselves rather than try to ‘dissect’ them through rapturous, scrutinising poesy. Being one of the great Romantic poets, distracted by words even when in Nature, Wordsworth is of course a filthy, (forgivable) hypocrite—up to his knees in Kant’s paradoxical beauty as much as the rest of us.
Making words of roses involves cutting their heads off, losing the essence, letting the adjectival rose oil leak into language’s dripping pores. Binding the immortal to time. That seepage is ink, is tense’s durational flow, is poetry’s cruelty. This is perhaps what Mallarmé means when he says: ‘Je dis un fleur, et le fleur est parti’—‘I say a flower, and the flower is cut/split/gone’ (translation: Tom McCarthy). To break the object of beauty down in writing is to incur a violence; as McCarthy glosses, ‘Things must disappear as things in order to appear symbolically’. What is perhaps most seductive is the remaining qualities, the deconstructionist’s milk and honey, the semiotic residue that clings between things. Spiderwebs, woven by first light, acquire a serene and gossamer gleam; but what is most seductive perhaps is the spaces between the lines, the way up close the lacing makes new frames for the real, the scenery behind and through.
Then we have Derrida’s ‘maddening’ supplement. For all roses refer to other roses, to every iteration of the word ‘rose’ throughout literary history. What a rose means can only lie in the space between these occurrences, and even then the meaning is temporary, contextual—there is no outside text, no place in which to hurl your roses to semantic abyss. We might hope for Love as some manifestation of the Lacanial Real, a pre-symbolic realm of pure emotion; but love too (as Roland Barthes reminds us) is discourse, perennial and yet bound to the fluctuations within language. ‘Rose’ is a noun, but it is also qualia: the subjective quality of something that cannot be objectively measured. Her cheeks were rosy, the rose-coloured sand (of the dream sequence in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film, Red Desert), a rosiness to the air that spoke of July. By scaling tone, we might get a general sense of what ‘rose’ is (a quality defined by difference rather than identity), but we’d never get to see rose through someone else’s experience. What is ‘rose’ to one poet might be ‘pale and bloody’ to another. Rimbaud writes, ‘The star has wept rose-colour in the heart of your ears’. Abstraction meets the concrete which itself is a spill through synecdoche. What music seeps, weeping, into the beloved’s ‘ears’? ‘Rose-colour’ becomes that synaesthetic property, the oozing, effulgent thing that cannot be pinned. For colour, like music, is perceptively subjective. What prompts a sudden spasm of imagining in you might send me to sleep; could we call both actions reactions to beauty?
‘It’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world’. So goes the line in American Beauty, Sam Mendes’ 1999 suburban modern classic—a film about midlife crisis, inappropriate lust, neurotic materialism and the nuclear family under late capitalism. Where Ricky, the visionary, weed-smoking teenager, sees a sort of sublimity in waste, videoing a plastic bag’s leaf-like billows in the wind, Lester falls for his daughter’s cheerleader friend, Angela. The particular Gen X fatigue over cultural trash and consumer excess is recycled as a pared-back appreciation for symbolic indications of the world’s decay—little quotidian details which offer momentary redemption as beauty in tragedy. The old Kantian adage of beauty’s je ne sais quoi. Lester’s misplaced infatuation for Angela is represented by motifs of lurid red roses, flowering outwards like bloody snowstorms of feminine intensity. The chase falls cold when they kiss IRL, and he realises she is just an insecure teenage girl. Tell me I’m beautiful. Interpreting the film is as tricky as trying to clasp onto any one of those whirling petals, to kiss a single tear on an eyelash, a dew-drop clung to the flesh of a rose. Joni Mitchell, in ‘Roses Blue’: “I think of tears, I think of rain on shingles / I think of rain, I think of roses blue”. A lyricist’s ability to make pearls of emotion. Superhydrophonic. Is this another symbol, listless, transient, glistening?
The Symbolists were mostly French poets of the fin-de-siècle, the likes of Rimbaud and Baudelaire (whose flowers were assuredly evil), who probably drank quantities of absinthe and wrote symbols that emblematised reality itself, rather than merely inward feeling. All that absinthe had to come out somewhere, idly wilding in the streets of Paris (pronounce it the French way). Where abstraction reigns often in the world of emotion, meaning accumulates through the repetition, modulation and pattering of these symbols. While Mallarmé’s poetry indulged in dreams and visions, it’s a certain patterning of associative power that provides the stitching behind his fashion for aleatory. The poetics of chance may still have a structure of sorts, something you can trace like the veiny trellises within a leaf. W. B. Yeats, the Irish Symbolist, loved a good rose: just see ‘The Rose of the World’ and ‘The Rose of Battle’. In his essay, ‘The Symbolism of Poetry’, Yeats makes frequent comparisons between symbols and music, describing the ‘musical relation’ of sound, colour and form as constitutive of symbol.
At a workshop I’ve been running with homeless people, a girl who shares her name with Stein’s favourite flower reads out a piece she’s written in ten minutes flat. It’s a typically tragic tale of abuse, of a family torn apart by pain, drugs, death and violence—written from the perspective of a ten-year-old girl, perhaps her daughter. She reads it with a stilted west coast accent that picks up its confidence and lilt as the sentences run on. Somehow in those sad and wilting lines, strewn with the accidental detritus of truth, there’s hope. It blooms so unexpectedly in all the despair. A ten-year-old girl sees the world very clearly and pure. I can only paraphrase, of course. I’m sad that I don’t get to see my mother, but she says that it’s okay because if I look at the moon I know that she’s looking at it too. This part struck me harder than any other—it seemed an echo from elsewhere. The whole piece became suddenly a buildup to that single, simple, irresistible image. When Yeats presents Burns’ ‘perfectly symbolical’ song of the moon and time, he misquotes him. Translation falters to glitch, like with lossy compression. The moon as a symbol, as something to be shared, a white chocolate button broken in two. Except you can’t split the moon. You can only imagine what the other person is seeing. I wonder what they were looking up to.
Where metaphors ‘are not profound enough to be moving’, symbols move in both senses of the word: they act through motion, the accumulative or associative arrangement of sound and meaning (as opposed to metaphor, which acquires meaning through more static, straightforward comparison), and they prompt affect in the reader. Such affect is not just the temporary indulgence of an artwork’s emotional value, but can indeed alter how the world is discursively understood. The rosy words thrown upon some poetic zephyr recalibrate reality as we know it. As Yeats puts it:
Because an emotion does not exist, or does not become perceptible and active among us, till it has found its expression, in colour or in sound or in form, or in all of these, and because no two modulations or arrangements of these evoke the same emotion, poets and painters and musicians, and in a less degree because their effects are momentary, day and night and cloud and shadow, are continually making and unmaking mankind.
The construction of feeling through symbols, then, institutes the substance and gaps that structure how we relate to ourselves, others and nonhuman objects. A very delicate, precise, imagist poem like William Carlos Williams’ ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ has effectively changed how we relate to both the colour red and wheelbarrows more generally (never mind the ‘white / chickens’). Symbols can charge our perception with fresh emotional channels. Music relates a bit differently, of course, but only because it literalises Yeats’ musical relation metaphor—there’s a more physical intensity, maybe. Like a river (you can never dip your finger twice in the same river), a piece of music cannot be played the exact same way again—a truism owing to the arbitrary dynamics of individual players, environments, acoustics or subtle interruptions of duration. A breath or a sneeze, a chance sigh in the background, a trumpeter who can never quite pace her crescendo. You experience the opera differently from me, even though we watch the same one (I have never been to the opera). My hearing is slightly muted, along with my interest in self-congratulatory coloratura; while you have perfect pitch, ears that ring with pleasure as the high notes hit. Though the same in one sense, comprising a shared duration, our encounters are completely different. Music’s durational function is made explicit with the likes of John Cage’s music concrète, composed of sounds rather than notes and thus retaining elements of chance within a certain duration. The process becomes more about selection, sampling and curation, rather than composition according to tones, melody, chords.
If anyone idled wildly, it was the notoriously languorous aesthete, Oscar Wilde. The decadence of roses is also associated with a certain concretisation of language, a making material of words, a honing of time and world. Consider the opening line of The Picture of Dorian Gray: ‘The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses’. The way assonance works, subtly wafting its chiming vowels through ‘filled’/‘rich’ and ‘odour’/‘roses’, creates that musical relation that Yeats so fetishised. Poetic techniques such as alliteration and assonance abound in Wilde’s novel, where prose becomes musical, lilting, exactly honed upon sensory detail, the vivid relation of objects. Roses that fill a studio, that pungently glow with lavish scent. There is a heady, ambient quality to much of Wilde’s descriptions, giving off the impression that we are perhaps perceiving how objects seem to one another, filtered through the opium vapours that so penetrated Dorian’s accelerating decadence: ‘In the slanting beams that streamed through the open doorway the dust danced and was golden. The heavy scent of the roses seemed to brood over everything.’ Objects are at once anthropomorphised and ornamental; that play between movement and stasis, however, cuts across binaries between human and nonhuman. The world of Dorian Gray is sprawling, random, a chase through meshes of entangled desire. A straightforward death drive is diverted by all sorts of sensory encounters, plastic morality, visionary beauty. And words? Words in Wilde are the petals that swell and unfurl into Yeatsian symbols:
Music had stirred him like that. Music had troubled him many times. But music was not articulate. It was not a new world, but rather another chaos, that it created in us. Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?
Words have (re)active potential. Each one shivers with the weight of its every use, alive with subtle magic. Be careful what you write.
“Gertrude Stein said that’s enough (I know that that’s not enough now)”. Gertrude Stein said a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. She said it first in ‘Sacred Emily’ (1913), and later wrote, in ‘Poetry and Grammar’:
When I said.
A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
And then later made that into a ring I made poetry and what did I do I caressed completely caressed and addressed a noun.
What do we swap for tautologies? Love is tautological; love justifies itself. It means everything and nothing. There’s isn’t any escaping the reifying loop, the ring with its symbolism of marriage. That which encapsulates and closes. The hermeneutic circle. Stein makes us linger, ponder the grammar of each rose. Ring-a-ring-‘o-roses. What does it mean to ‘caress’ a noun? To render the erotic potential of language by gesture of touch, extend into physical… Idlewild: a word whose internal rhymes fold together, whose l sounds caress the roof of the mouth.
“Gertrude Stein said that’s enough.”
Lana Del Rey: “You always buy me roses like a creep.”
Also Lana Del Rey: “And then you buy me roses and it’s fine.”
There’s a surfeit of petals and sex, a gluttonous economy of symbols which Stein stamps out with the simple carousel of her musical roses. Sing it slowly. Tell me what you mean.
Luce Irigaray, from This Sex Which Is Not One:
Your body expresses yesterday in what it wants today. If you think: yesterday I was, tomorrow I shall be, you are thinking: I have died a little. Be what you are becoming, without clinging to what you might have been, what you might yet be. Never settle. Leave definitiveness to the undecided; we don’t need it.
Lana Del Rey, reading from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
I pass between worlds and names and symbols. Every lipstick stain is another iteration, each kiss the palimpsest of the first, and even photographs fade in the sun, faces dissolving like planes behind clouds. Of ‘cappuccino pink ranunculus’—not roses—Colin Herd writes: ‘They’re at their most ravishing and / ethereal the day before they expire’. I imagine a white corridor imprinted with all your flickering dreams. Between realms, the soft wilt allures more even than it does in bloom. Images become sentences: long thorny stems of sentences, stretching and snarling a confusion of brambles and briars. The more you write, the more you grow your beautiful garden. I tear my wrists and fingers, trying to get to it: ‘There is a forcible affect of language which courses like blood through its speakers. Language is impersonal; its working through and across us is indifferent to us, yet in the same blow it constitutes the fibre of the personal’ (Denise Riley). This garden I make is not really mine and daily it grows stranger. The roses offer their pretty heads, then droop in winter. I hear their beautiful words in arterial melodies, sprawling among shadow, platitude, the skeins of a letter letting loose through my pores.
Roseability: the quality of forever chasing roseability. File under qualia, noun/rock, the poetics of etcetera.
Analysis/Review: Roddy Hart’s 17th Annual Gordon Lecture and the Contemporary American Lyric
What a treat to listen to a lecture sprinkled with songs and stories, especially among the beautiful acoustics of Glasgow University’s chapel. After a rather spectacular introduction from Professor Simon Newman, singer-songwriter Roddy Hart gave the 17th Annual Gordon Lecture, organised by university’s Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies. Having collaborated with Kris Kristofferson, released an EP of Dylan covers and found success in the States with a stint on Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show—not to mention running his own radio show for BBC Scotland and hosting Celtic Connections, the BBC Quay Sessions and the Roaming Roots Revue—Hart was well qualified to talk on this subject from a musician’s point of view.
Hart’s talk was a tribute to the great American lyric; to what makes it, in Hart’s words, particularly alluring, otherworldly and cool, especially to those who grew up outside of the United States. Admitting that he lacks an academic education in the history of American culture and music (actually, Hart has a law degree gleaned from within these very walls), Hart made up for this by sheer enthusiasm, celebrating the musical merits of songs from Woody Guthrie to Father John Misty and covering such topics as the journey motif, humour, darkness, nostalgia, politics and death. The talk took the form of a powerpoint, with Roddy speaking, singing snippets of songs and then commenting on their significance in a lucid, passionate way that kept everyone hooked for an hour and a half.
Hart began with the assertion that lyrics are not poetry, or indeed literature of any kind. Lyrics, he claimed, involve respect for structure, rhyme, metre and field (all definitions you could apply to poetry…), a certain knack for a hook, a streak of ingenuity and originality. Like poetry, a great lyric can reshape how we view the world we live in, send ripples through the fabric of reality and inspire us to take action, critically reflect or wallow in grief. The distinction Hart draws between poetry and the lyric prompted a desire to find out what exactly his thoughts are on Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. My own thoughts on this issue have never rested on a single position, and I don’t really know enough about the prize’s history to comment on Dylan’s suitability. However, there have always been strong connections between lyricists and poets, from the likes of Langston Hughes writing jazz poems during the Harlem Renaissance to Kate Tempest releasing rap albums as well as a novel and poetry collections published by the likes of Picador and Bloomsbury, no less. Hell, what about Leonard Cohen? At the end of the day, all writing is a performance of sorts, regardless of how it’s delivered. I could talk about Roland Barthes here, mention ‘The Death of the Author’, how the reader ‘performs’ the text like a score of music etc etc, but I won’t digress. Basically: sometimes a poem seems built for performance; other times it rests more easily on the page, where the eye follows an intriguing visual form or dance of letters arranged on white space. While poetry can be a two-way street, I’m not sure how well Dylan’s verse works on the page. Admittedly, most of his songs tell interesting stories, but that deceptive simplicity often needs the nuance and expression of Dylan’s voice to draw out the subtler levels of irony, humour, derision or sorrow from straightforward-seeming lyrics. Just my two cents on the matter, though I still like to wallow in ambiguity when it comes to these distinctions.
Hart gives the proviso that his talk is meant to be a working definition of the American lyric, not a comprehensive history. He does, however, mention a few characteristic features. The prominent one, of course, is name-checking: all the best American lyrics will draw on the wealth of states, street names, famous bars and hotels. In doing so, they draw on a tradition, they write themselves into a history of locations, urban legends and folk tales. Hart illustrated this by starting with Paul Simon’s ‘America’, pointing out how the song documents a search for America itself; this idea that America will always be this endless signifier, sliding along the great highway of desire that stretches across desert, country and city, drawing across generations. On the way, the lovers in Simon’s song make the best of their adventure, cooking up stories from the characters on the Greyhound, honing in on material details. It’s this sense of taking the listener on a journey that’s one of the American lyric’s greatest seductions. As Simon sings, “it took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw” the chords soar and there’s that sense of being lifted to somewhere radically elsewhere, an open field, road, desert. The sweet spot between freedom and sorrow, of missing something deep and mysterious, the impossible pursuit.
Hart traces such material details in songs by Kris Kristofferson and Dylan, this sense of a ‘quintessential American aesthetic’ which he quite eloquently describes as a ‘Moby Dick-esque hunt across America’. The whale, ironically, is America itself. The road narrative is central to the American lyric. It’s a romanticised, extravagant sprawl into the dust of the past and glitter of the future, marked by place names which glow with familiar warmth and legendary spirit. Hart argues that this is something specific to the American lyric; that a Scottish equivalent wouldn’t quite have that same epic effect. He even sings a made-up local spin on ‘America’ to prove it; a journey between Edinburgh and Dunoon falls pretty flat in comparison. Of course there’s something special about the land of the free, in all its bright mythology and promise, but it’s not as if Scottish bands haven’t tried it. There’s that famous line from The Proclaimers’ ‘500 Miles’ which immortalises an array of parochial towns ravished by Thatcher, deindustrialisation and eighties recession: “Bathgate no more. Linwood no more. Methil no more. Irvine no more”. Of course there isn’t the same expansive magic, but there is something epic about lyrically connecting the local to broader political discontent. Still, you can’t really compare the Proclaimers to Simon & Garfunkel…or can you?
Back to America. Hart describes Dylan as the nation’s great scene-setter, effortlessly drawing a sense of the times from the wisping drift of personal narrative, of stories about people and their lives. Details shuffled together like cards and strung along a line of verse. While some singers make their politics clear in the didactic manner of protest, Dylan sets these more intimate tales against the backdrop of cities and an impressionistically vivid sense of history. Hart plays possibly my favourite Dylan song, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ from the 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks, spending time going over the lyrics to point out the singer’s knack for detail, the narrative journey which documents a succession of relationships, places and jobs. That famous philosophy: you’ve got to keep on keeping on. There’s something more raw here than the cosy, apple-pie fuelled comforts of Kerouac’s road narratives, which always depend on money from back home. You can hear it in the howl of Dylan’s voice, which becomes more a sultry croon in Hart’s version. What does he mean by blue? There’s the blues, there’s the blue of the sky and the ocean—symbols of infinitude. It’s a signifier that shifts as easily as Dylan’s character, from fisherman to cook, as he crosses over the West, learning to see things “from a different point / of view”. Surely this is one the basis for democracy, the meritocratic ideal of fairness upon which the USA was founded: empathy? The ability to openly shift your perspective, to never stay too long in your own shoes. That existential restlessness, set against the backdrop of a shaky political atmosphere, the dustbowl sense of losing one’s bearings in a maelstrom of uncertainty, characterises many of Dylan’s songs and indeed many road narratives throughout literature and American lyric.
You can’t talk about the American lyric without mentioning politics and Hart documents the history of the protest song, from Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’ to Tracy Chapman’s ‘Talking About a Revolution’: songs that pose an equality of belonging, that document the quiet desperation and struggle that takes place beneath the surface of everyday life. Rather than tangling himself in the barbed reality of contemporary politics, Hart opts to situate his chosen songs in the context of more general themes: the failings of the American dream, social inequality and the oppression of working people, all set against the turning tides of the economic landscape. It’s notable that most of these singers are men, singing about working men, often with reference to some vulnerable lost girl who needs saved. But then you have the likes of Anaïs Mitchell, writing visceral songs of longing and misplaced identity. ‘Young Man in America’ opens with this mythological, sort of monstrous story of birth: “My mother gave a mighty shout / Opened her legs and let me out / Hungry as a prairie dog”. Images of industrial decline, capitalist opulence and landscapes both mythical and pastoral are woven by a voice whose identity is a mercurial slide between human, animal and disembodied call. Skin is shed, belonging is only a shifting possibility. It’s a complex song, with native percussion, brass; moments of towering climax and soft withdrawal. The music mirrors the strange undulations of the American journey from cradle to grave, its dark pitfalls and glittering peaks, the cyclical narratives of the lost and forgotten; the “bright money” and the “shadow on the mountaintop”, the fame of the “young man in America”, a universal identity disseminated across a range of experiences. For this is the myth of the American Everyman, and Mitchell deconstructs it beautifully.
On the subject of female songwriters, I was very pleased that Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams got a mention in Hart’s talk. The self-destructive sentiment of Welch’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ reminds us that the experience of being ground down by the relentless demands of a marketised society isn’t confined to men alone. Welch’s ‘Everything is Free’, not mentioned in the talk though highly relevant, makes this clear. It’s a song about artists will go on making their art even if they won’t get paid, and the tale of how capitalism discovered this and cashed in on its fact: “Someone hit the big score, they figured it out / That we’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay”. Like Dylan, Welch finds herself winding up on the road, working in bars, working hard and regretting being enslaved to, well, The Man. ‘Everything is Free’ is a message of both despondency and hope, crafting this sense of the beauty of song itself as protest and freedom even as the structure closes in: “Every day I wake up, hummin’ a song / But I don’t need to run around, I just stay at home”.
Hart mentions how the American lyric provides an escape to those who find themselves trapped in the smallness of their lives. You might live in a nondescript town slap-bang in the middle of Scotland, where the musical climate favours chart music blasted from bus-stop ringtones, but then aged fourteen you discover Dylan or Springsteen and suddenly America opens up its vast, sparkly vista, from East Coast to West. This seems to be Hart’s trajectory, as his career—from the first tour with Kristofferson to his continued promotion of transatlantic connections—closely follows an American strain of songwriting. My mum used to listen to Welch’s Time (The Revelator) album over and over again on long car journeys, so the lyrics to all those road songs are burned in my brain like tracks in vinyl, superimposed with endless visions of the M8 stretching out before me… It was only a couple of years ago that I found out Time (The Revelator) was released in 2001; I’d always assumed this stuff was ancient, the seventies at least. Maybe because Welch just has this knack for writing timeless songs; songs about heartbreak, loneliness and restless desire that reach back into the comforts of the past even as the journey itself is long and hollow, the destination vague as the blurred sign on the front of a train.
I guess this raises a broader question which Hart’s talk touched upon: the politics and poetics of nostalgia. There weren’t opportunities for questions afterwards, but if there were I might have asked Hart whether nostalgia is a necessary condition for American self-reinvention. It’s a pretty relevant question right now, with much of Trump’s whole appeal based on the nostalgic vision of a vaguely industrial golden age of capitalism—a vision which is obviously the smokescreen for whatever chaotic ideologies are at work beneath the surface. The American lyric can set up this romanticised vision, only to break it apart; reveal its seedy underbelly, its failings, the disastrous gap between identified goals and actual means of attainment. Yet throughout the cynicism, there’s always that restless desire to continue, to keep on keeping on. Hart compares it to the green light in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), a novel significantly indebted to music (jazz, of course). The final line of that novel captures that past/present lyrical impulse so well: ‘so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’.
Which leads to the question: what about genre? Is the American lyric necessarily the domain of indie folk rockers? What about commercial music and pop? Can a pop artist deconstruct the American dream and earn a play in the lyrical family tree if they make money off their record and earn fame from MTV? Hart engages with Father John Misty as an example of how the American lyric can use humour to deconstruct the nation’s ideologies of progress and meritocracy, at the same time as retaining a post-postmodern self-awareness of identity politics, a meta-awareness of his own dabbling in ironic coolness. His very name evokes a sort of New Age gospel figure, a preacher for the times, whose stage is the television set or Twitter feed instead of the old-fashioned soapbox. Hart describes songs such as ‘I’m Writing a Novel’ and ‘Bored in the USA’ (obviously a riff on Springsteen’s classic) as depicting the ‘American dream for the millennials’. I’ve written about Misty extensively already on this blog (specifically, on his metamodernist tendencies), so I won’t go into detail here, but suffice to say I agree that FJM represents something special about contemporary cultural critique. It’s that blend of irony and sincerity, an exaggerated interrogation of the romanticism and the Gen X postmodernism of yore; the oscillation between raw subjective experience, political critique and the cool facade of self-deprecating wit. A constant juggling of ‘candour and self-mockery’, as Dorian Lynskey puts it. FJM notoriously got into a tiff during an interview with Radio 6 Music veterans, Radcliffe and Maconie. Aside from all the awkward sarcasm, what strikes me about this interview is the mentioning of kitsch merchandise objects: oven-gloves, jeggings. Hart explores a bit of kitsch lyric in the likes of Randy Newman, but I think FJM blends especially well that jaded sense of millennial despondence alongside tracks that can feel like rollicking simple narratives or epics of history on a 13-minute scale that gives Springsteen’s marathon tunes a run for their money. He pushes his stuff to the edge of the cheesy and cringe-worthy, exposing how all conviction has that shadow side of kitsch, even the most authentic lyrics—kitsch is somehow the cheap taste of someone else’s experience, the trick is to make it meaningful, and not just another imitation, a plastic model of the Empire State Building.
But Misty isn’t the only singer-songwriter deconstructing the American dream, exploring how both its poetic promise and jingoistic glory play out on a personal level. What about Ryan Adams, whose songs have that alt-country appeal of the restless bard? ‘New York, New York’, from his 2001 album Gold, opens with a Dylanesque lyric about shuffling “through the city on the 4th of July”, brandishing a “firecracker” that’ll break “like a rocket who was makin’ its way / To the cities of Mexico”. The clean rhymes and ballad-like lilt of guitar are also very Dylanesque. But at some point I’ve got to stop making comparisons to Dylan, because ultimately this is reductive; it’s cheap and lazy music journalism. I do think, however, the ease with which we make these comparisons reveals something interesting about our generic assumptions. Guy has a guitar, sings melancholy songs about America and his place within it, a smart knack for a lyrical twist, occasionally picks up a harmonica? Instant Dylan; their careers overshadowed by a giant. (Note: I guess a similar thing happens with very talented female folk singers—the likes of Laura Marling—being compared to Joni Mitchell). But even Dylan doesn’t monopolise the American lyric. He might have a Nobel Prize, but this doesn’t crown him King of the Lyric Alone (or maybe it does?); we’ve got to tease out what exactly we mean by this term and how relevant it is in the fragmentary scene of contemporary music. Think with Dylan, but beyond Dylan.
Conor Oberst, formerly of the band Bright Eyes, is an artist who’s been branded with Dylan comparisons throughout his career (an extensive career at that; the precocious Nebraskan recorded his first album, Water, aged just 13). Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker condenses many of my own feelings on the Oberst/Dylan comparisons: ‘Dylan is armour-plated, even when singing about love; Oberst is permanently open to pain, wonder, and confusion.’ Oberst is in many ways a liminal figure: cutting it out on the folk and country circuit (Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch appear on previous records) while hanging and collaborating with indie rock bands (The Felice Brothers, First Aid Kit, Dawes), flirting with punk (The Desaparecidos) and fitting with some comfort within the elastic nineties/noughties stratosphere of emo. Frere-Jones describes Oberst as a ‘poet-prince’, again opening debate on that binary between poetry and lyric that Hart sets up but that nonetheless remains slippery and problematic. Where Dylan espouse the solid wisdom of a sage or wandering bard, Oberst has a reticent, warbling quality that rises to epiphany but admits failure and the graceless fall into existential aporia. He wails like Dylan wails, but many of his songs have a fragility and surrealism that doesn’t quite match up with Dylan’s more assured narrative balladry. So in that sense, he’s a lyric poet in the more subdued, Keatsian manner, exploring the self in all its fragmentary, perplexing existence.
But he’s also very much an American lyricist. In his ‘mature’ career, Oberst hasn’t shied away from more directly tackling political themes alongside more personal songs. 2005’s ‘When the President Talks to God’ rips to shreds George W. Bush’s policies. Comprising a series of questions addressed to an audience, it more closely follows the form of a traditional protest song, laced with bitter satire: “When the president talks to God / Do they drink near beer and go play golf / While they pick which countries to invade / Which Muslim souls still can be saved?”. This is definitely a song to be performed, on a wide open stage or indeed to the even wider audience accessing broadcasts of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, where he performed the song in 2005. Then there’s the angry, crunchy southern kick of ‘Roosevelt Room’, off Oberst’s solo record, Outer South (2009). Oberst’s later work isn’t as playfully weird and surreal as his early bedroom stuff, sure, but increasingly he masters the power of allusion that characterises American lyric, in Hart’s sense of the term: “Go ask Hunter Thompson / Go ask Hemingway’s ghost”. He’s addressing someone to be critiqued, wrenching them off their political pedestal: “Hope you haven’t got too lazy / I know you like your apple pie / Cause the working poor you’ve been pissing on / Are doing double shifts tonight”. There’s that apple pie again, symbol of steadfast Americana, fuel of the nation, the well-lighted place of a diner—a place of domesticity, stability and, let’s face it, commercial comfort. Oberst cynically dismisses the well-nourished white middle class politician, recalling a generalised story of poverty from material details: “And I’d like to write my congressman / But I can’t afford a stamp”.
Then there’s the frontier motif, the sense of America as a place of deep mystery as well as self-created landscape. Experiments with Eastern and Navajo cultures. Bright Eyes’ 2007 album, Cassadaga, with its album art requiring a spectral decoder to be fully appreciated, its envisioning of the singer as mystic or medium, channelling psychic forces through song. Cassadaga is very much a journey. The opening track, ‘Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)’ involves an extended spoken word sample of some kind of very American mystic who begins by setting us in the ‘centre of energy’, Cassadaga’s ‘wonderful grounds that have vortexes’, moving us through astral projections of a ‘new era and life’ that is changing, a message of hope, doubling back on the uncanny sense that ‘Cassadaga might be just a premonition of a place you’re going to visit’. Cassadaga is a real place, a spiritualist camp set somewhere between Daytona and Orlando, known as the ‘Psychic Capital of the World’. By naming his album Cassadaga, Oberst isn’t just name-dropping in typical hipster fashion, honouring local identity nor casting back nostalgically to a familiar place; he’s attempting to channel the energy of this location, interrogate its spirit, draw out its various psychic possibilities for the present. He sings of attempts to detoxify his life, of former affairs, of lost soul singers and the pursuit of a sense of belonging.
‘Lime Tree’ is one of the most beautiful songs Oberst has written. It’s a composite tracing of impressions drawn from various experiences, both personal or secondhand. While much of Cassadaga follows an upbeat, distinctly country sound in the manner of 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, ‘Lime Tree’ closes the record with a dreamy, wistful serenity that recalls the likes of ‘Lua’, ‘Something Vague’ and ‘Easy/Lucky/Free’. Accompanied by angelic female vocals, ‘Lime Tree’ is ethereal, the guitar strumming minimal though following a certain continuous loop. Pale and lush strings contribute to the sense of being pulled downstream, giving yourself up to the languorous current. Ostensibly, it’s a song about abortion, about a struggling relationship: “Since the operation I heard you’re breathing just for one / Now everything’s imaginary, especially what you love”. But as in all good poetry, the beauty of the lyrics on ‘Lime Tree’ is their movement from specific experience to a vaguely spiritual voyage that gestures towards ending but instead finds the open plains of abyss, always suspended in paradox and ambiguity, the fault-lines between life/death, hope/despair, dream/reality: “So pleased with a daydream that now living is no good / I took off my shoes and walked into the woods / I felt lost and found with every step I took”. Home is a tidal wave, a churning wind, a shifting sand, a fragment.
America’s great confessional poet, Sylvia Plath, also explored mysticism, and her writing is rich with strange imagery, not to mention all those Tarot allusions in Ariel. In The Bell Jar (1963), the fig tree is the novel’s dark and mysterious heart, this vivid image that sprawls its symbolism through the text, a figure for existential paralysis: ‘I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story […] I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose’. We might think of the connection between the term ‘roots’ and ‘roots rock’, its rhizomatic sprawl of influence never quite settling on a home even as a sense of home and locality is supposedly the music’s grounding purpose. Roots, of course, are always growing. The lime tree is an image plucked from a dream, but its significance is less clear in Oberst’s song than the fig tree in Plath’s narrative. Perhaps more than most contemporary songwriters working within a lyric tradition, Oberst is content to write from a position of uncertainty, in gaps and pieces of affect and narrative. The sound of his voice suspended over those gentle strings and strums is enough to make tremors in your chest, as if the slow vortex of another world were opening its mouth like the parting of the sea in someone else’s biblical or drug-enhanced dream: “I can’t sleep next to a stranger when I’m coming down.” The way of the lyric; so often the way of the lonely. Even as ‘Lime Tree’ might be a love song, it opens itself towards ending, loss, death: “don’t be so amazing or I’ll miss you too much”; there can never be plenitude in the journey: “everything gets smaller now the further that I go”. Bittersweet doesn’t quite cut it. It’s too subtle for that, a softly shimmering lullaby goodbye to the world, a retreat and a return, just like Nick Carraway’s vision of beating on but back into the past. The passage of an everyday spiritual pilgrim, the way we all are in life, our faces fading in the ink-blot of photographs. We turn back to look at ourselves through others, through words, just as Dylan notes how the girl in the “topless bar” “studied the lines on my face”.
A voyage through nostalgia, a quest for identity, belonging, an escape from something and a return, a desiring pursuit without end, a lust for life and ease into death; a twist of humour, a narrative of hope, aspiration and the failures that draw us back into the dustbowl. The American lyric is all of these things and more; its boundaries perhaps are pliable as the nylon strings on somebody’s battered acoustic guitar. Maybe it all culminates in madness and absurdity. For every One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you’ve got The Felice Brothers’ ‘Jack at the Asylum’, a rollicking satire on the madness of contemporary American life which trades in richly surreal and absurd imagery to render the accelerated pace of this madness, crossing history in the blink of a screen flicker: “And I’ve seen your pastures of green / The crack whores, the wars on the silver screen”. Pastoral America is always already contaminated by an originary violence. Maybe the best American lyric depicts such realisations through personal stories, the relationships and encounters set against and embedded within wider structural phenomena, the recessions and closures and urbanisations. The Felice Brothers remind us, however, that all of this is secondhand, aspirational narratives passed down to us through screen culture, advertising: “You give me dreams to dream / Popcorn memories and love”. Once again, there’s that fluctuation between an earnest love of country to an embittered sense of its very elusiveness, the distant static shimmer of success whose failed pursuit we watch ourselves experience through the mediating comforts of daily life—the popcorn pharmakon poisons and cures for (post)modern existence, as calorific as they are nutritionally empty.
But once again, genre. String off a handful of names from Hart’s Americana playlist and you’ll be pressed to find anything that falls outside the folk-rock camp, even as its boundaries remain pretty permeable. Yet what of hiphop? Isn’t hiphop, in a sense, the great alternative American folk lyric? Rap is it’s own kind of poetry, after all. You might think of someone like Kendrick Lamar as an American lyric writer, working from a different generic background from Hart’s examples, but nonetheless telling the story of contemporary USA from the streets to the level of the visionary, just like Dylan did. Lamar even has a track called ‘Good Morning America’: “we dusted off pulled the bullet out our heads / Left a permanent scar, for the whole world to recognise / California, economics, pay your taxes bitch”. Once again, that originary violence, the scar of identity. Lamar works back from the wounding.
My knowledge of hiphop is far too limited to discuss it in any detail, but thinking it through the idea of American lyric prompted me onto the figure of Lana Del Rey, who often uses hiphop production techniques, from trap beats to muted, stadium echoes. I hate to bang on about oor Lana again (see articles here & here), but irresistibly she’s a shining example of a mercurial musician, drawn to the sweet dark chocolate centre of American melancholy. LDR performs a kaleidoscopic array of identities, just as Dylan often wore a mask that veiled itself in the confessional sincerity of the beaten-down worker, drinker, lover, escaping to the Mid-West alone. Yet while America’s great bard more or less got away with it, Lana has been constantly lambasted for her artifice and supposed inauthenticity. Which begs the question: what do we even mean by authenticity? Is only the white male—your Princes, Bowies and Eminems—allowed to strut in the performative identity parade? Both LDR and Lady Gaga have been lambasted for their supposed fakeness. There are obviously complex questions of racial, class and gender identity which I don’t have time to cover here. Sometimes, a musician is lauded for their alter ego (and doesn’t alter ego itself imply a certain surrender to the patriarchal ideology of masculinity?)—take Beyoncé’s hugely successful Sasha Fierce—and other times, it takes the invisible tide of the internet to swell in support for those critiqued by other forms of media.
My friend Louise is always comparing LDR’s work to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novelistic visions of 1920s America, and while this might seem a bit extravagant, there’s something to be said for the way Lana seamlessly evokes the spirit of the jazz age, the consumer paradise of the 1950s and the hipsterdom of millennial Brooklyn in the through the poetry of song. Is this just retroculture, in the sense of recycled kitsch and the twenty-first century urge towards nostalgia explored in Simon Reynolds’ excellent Retromania (2011)? Is there something pathological in Lana’s obsession with the past, a symptom of a broken psyche or worse, a broken generation? Perhaps. But there is something transformative and subversive about LDR’s retrovision, even as it may be critiqued for indulging in vintage gender roles as much as vintage styles (framing yourself as a sort of white-trash ‘gangster Nancy Sinatra’ is always gonna invite a certain feminist controversy, let’s face it).
One of Hart’s recent examples of the American lyric came from The National (even the band name evokes questions of what it means to be American), with their song ‘Sorrow’ from 2010’s dark and trembling High Violet. I’m interested in how this song apostrophises sorrow in the manner of a great Romantic lyric. We might think of Keats’ ‘Ode to Melancholy’ or Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets, the eighteenth-century cult of sensibility remade for jaded and alienated millennials. Sorrow once again invokes that Platonic idea of the pharmakon as both poison and cure. We can wallow passively in sorrow, as The National sing: “I live in a city sorrow built / It’s in my honey, it’s in my milk”: it’s a trapped landscape, a petrified terrain in which the self can only slip deeper into isolation; but it’s also milk and honey, a kind of temporary nourishment to a darker psychic scar. As Smith so eloquently puts it in the final lines of 1785’s ‘Sonnet Xxxii: To Melancholy’: O Melancholy!–such thy magic power, / That to the soul these dreams are often sweet, / And soothe the pensive visionary mind!’. Sorrow provides a toxic tonic for the soul, a lubricant for paralysis that eventually leads us back towards the existential road. Life goes on.
Lana Del Rey is fixated on sorrow. Blue, she admits, is her favourite colour, her favourite “tone of song”. Her songs are always hyper aware of the transient beauty of life, even as they lust after death. On the soundtrack song she did for Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, she worries “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” ‘Video Games’ is a melancholy ballad for the contemporary relationship, a lush, brooding expression of love in the time of Call of Duty. Roddy Hart even did a cover of it. Her songs have titles like ‘The Blackest Day’, ‘Cruel World’, Sad Girl’, ‘West Coast’, ‘Old Money’, ‘American’, ‘Gods & Monsters’ and ‘Summertime Sadness’. All these titles evoke the Daisy Buchanan sad girl trope at the same time as gesturing towards the broader existential melancholy of America itself in the manner of Springsteen; with sometimes the detached urban cool of Lou Reed, other times the genuine, trembling passion of Billie Holiday. The video for ‘National Anthem’ restyles Lana as a Jackie O type married to a young, good-looking black president, with 1950s iconography spliced among pastel-hazed footage of the pair lolling around in love, sniffing roses, smiling, looking good as a Vanity Fair shoot. The video begins with her character singing Marilyn Monroe’s famous ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ routine. She re-envisions JFK’s assassination, with a spoken word piece on top. She’s imagining alternative political futures even as she casts back to the past. There’s that lyric sense of wonder and ambiguity, of being lost in time.
It’s this layering of styles, scenes and cultural iconography that makes Lana’s work way more complex than most of what else fills the charts. Sure, it’s great that a positive message of bodily empowerment (Beyoncé feminism) is doing the rounds just now, but that shouldn’t mean that those who fall outside this category are anti-feminist or ignorant to gender identity politics. When all the R&B pop stars are prancing around proclaiming their sexual freedom, dominating men in various flavours of BDSM allusion, getting all the looks in the club or whatever, LDR is crying diamond dust tears into her Pepsi cola, draped naked in an American flag. Her videos, songs and artwork engage with cinematic discourse, high fashion photography and cultural history in a manner that’s intellectual interesting as much as it is affective and aesthetically satisfying. In a sense, she’s meaningfully evoking the past in order to say something timeless about the American dream and the objectified position of the ‘white trash’ woman under its mast of starry glory. In another sense, she’s indulging in a postmodern recycling of historical styles: constantly name-dropping, from James Dean to Springsteen, Lolita—perhaps the great American road novel not written by an American—and David Lynch’s lush, dark suburban epic, Blue Velvet. Despite the performance and ventriloquy of figures and archetypes from twentieth-century cultural history, she retains a sincere expression of melancholy, heartbreak and longing that’s personal but also strives towards rendering the more universal experiences of womanhood in certain communities. All the controversy surrounding Lana in relation to racial politics, class politics and sexual politics exists because her work is provocative, problematic and complex, like any good American lyric.
One reason that Roddy Hart was such a good choice to deliver this lecture is that he’s had experience writing new melodies for Robert Burns poems for Homecoming Scotland. Why is this relevant to the American lyric? So much of the lyric tradition, in all its forms, is based on that sense of romanticism, visionary wonder, self-exploration; the rendering of universal experience through personal narratives, the subjective telling of a story, the trade in imagery and sound and careful arrangement. Burns was a sort of rock star poet of his times, and not just because he was a bit of a cheeky philanderer. He toured around, worked as a labourer and farmer; he talked to many people, opened himself to influence. It’s this diversity that continues to mark the American lyric in the twenty-first century; the way that Father John Misty can sing a very ironic and playful song on late-show tv, about a man checking social media on his death bed, with the conviction of a crooning Leonard Cohen; accompanied by a gospel choir whose voice raises Misty’s ballad to a level of epic, overly extravagant grandeur that still somehow works, remains genuinely compelling beyond the initial sarcasm. The way Detroit’s angelic avant-indie hero, Sufjan Stevens, can ambitiously and patriotically plan to write an album for every state in America, then turn on the project, calling it “such a joke“. The way that Suzanne Vega, in ‘Tom’s Diner’, sings about a familiar American institution, the fabled diner—or Well-Lighted Place, as Hemingway put it—with the simple verse structure of an Imagist poem made narrative, sketching brief impressions of the myriad people she encounters in a public space. It feels cinematic, with deep eighties bass, bursts of brass and string-like synths, but also has that emergent sense of a postmodern folk, looking at the world from the bottom-up, catching everyday lives and stories in song. Even when irony remains the chief aesthetic order of the day, the lyric doesn’t have to be sucked into self-referential abyss. The best singer-songwriters continue to channel the American lineage through a romantic strain as much as a humorous one, inflecting songs with sorrow, joy and vitally that lust for something more—sometimes beyond life itself, sometimes just the restless possibilities of the road. Singing alone in the Glasgow Uni chapel on a Thursday evening, Roddy Hart rekindled some love for all that.
In Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1964 film Red Desert, loosely inspired by Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking ecological text, Silent Spring (1962), one of the characters complains that he was at a restaurant and the ‘eel tasted of petroleum’. This is a film landscaped by oil rigs, the persistent murmur of a dull grey dying sea, industrial structures whirring with eerie electricity. While there is a distinct sense of disconnection between characters, between humans and their environment, one connection that persists is between excess, waste and the body. While nowadays fish change genders due to oestrogen from the Pill being excreted and pumped from sewage into rivers, in Antonioni’s film, haunted by the apocalyptic backdrop of the Cold War, the characters worry about their food getting cloaked in some essence of what gets dumped and yet is also extracted from the sea. A perverse cycle of waste, energy, wasted energy.
This early expression of ecological disaster as embedded in a fear of contamination, of sliminess mixing with toxic sliminess, has its roots even further back, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). After shooting the albatross and overcoming a terrible, supernatural (super as in extra nature, nature made unnatural by being its full strong self) storm, the mariner finds himself suspended in the aftermath, ‘as idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean’ (Coleridge 2015). This sense of time frozen, of the environment refusing to yield to human command, is uncanny, a reminder that the land isn’t just something we can divide and conquer. The image of idleness and a ‘painted ocean’ recalls the experience of a crashed computer screen, hung or ‘frozen’ as the mariner is in the sheets of ice ‘green as emerald’ (Coleridge 2015). Think of a typical glitch, that which overlaps colour, blends unrelated materials together in a random, patchwork image. The ice is the colour of grass, yet still we are in the ocean. This is an environment without location, an ‘anywhere’ of strange displacement. This is the place of the ecological glitch.
Rosa Menkman describes a glitch as ‘a (actual and/or simulated) break from an expected or conventional flow of information or meaning within (digital) communication systems that results in a perceived accident’(2011: 9). While we are dealing in poems like Coleridge’s with a ‘natural’ system as opposed to a digital one, the strange effect of ‘accident’ persists. ‘Nature’ is never as it seems, never ‘natural’ but always unexpected, strange. Systems follow patterns which glitch; the patterns themselves, like evolution, proceed often by a logic of chance, randomness. The weather in The Ancient Mariner is not just climate, a conventional flow of data to be charted and forecasted; but it is positively weird. Weird in the etymological sense identified by Timothy Morton as ‘a turn or twist or loop, a turn of events’, the ‘flickers [of] a dark pathway between causality and the aesthetic dimension, between doing and appearing’ (2016: 5). We question whether the crime of shooting the albatross instigates this ecological horror, which culminates in the monstrous appearance of ‘a million million slimy things’ which the mariner sees surrounding the ship. Like Antonioni’s petroleum eels, these slimy things are stuck with the human character, they have by proximity or digestion become enmeshed, to borrow another term from Morton, the idea that ‘nothing exists by itself, and so nothing is fully “itself”’ (2010: 15). The mariner realises his own surprising mortality, just as the slimy things ‘liv’d on – so did I’. His attempt to lump the slimy things as one gelatinous mass of gross matter leaves him realising that he can’t distance himself from the ugly parts of nature, because he himself is part of the mass, that mesh of beings.
We might now describe Coleridge’s flirtation with the supernatural as a kind of magical realism, and the trend of using such weird elements to render ecological themes continues in a short story written by Karen Russell and published in the New Yorker in 2016. ‘The Bog Girl’ tells the story of a fifteen-year-old boy, Cillian, who works as a turf-cutter in the peatlands of some ambiguous ‘green island off the coast of northern Europe’, inflected with hints of Heaney’s hardy Irish pastoralism. Cillian falls in love with a young girl pulled from the bog; she is ‘whole and intact, cocooned in peat, curled like a sleeping child’ with ‘lustrous hair’ dyed ‘wild red-orange’ by the ‘bog acids’ (Russell 2016a). Crucially, there is a noose round her neck. She is young in appearance but probably 2000 years old; her flame-haired and gaunt appearance recalls Celtic/Pictish origins as well as a ragged Pre-Raphaelitism, which hints at Cillian’s weird fetishisation of her beauty. The story that unfolds can be read as a love story, a tale of caution against projecting your ideal fantasies onto ‘the mask of another person’s face’ (Russell 2016b); but here I will read it as a tale of ecological horror that warns of the dangers of industry and celebrates the sensuous mysteries of the peatlands as something that deserves preserving.
Our current era, the Anthropocene, is one of distorted scale, where constantly we deposit chemicals into the atmosphere and earth whose afterlife beyond our own we can barely even gauge as mortal humans. Russell’s story explores this (im)possible meeting of temporalities through an encounter with strangeness which allows us to mull upon our relationship with the earth, to realise our absolute enmeshment with the environment. No matter the narratives we construct through history and science, all human theory is at best the ‘most speculative fiction’; while improvements in science (‘radiocarbon dating, DNA testing’) allow us to trace the ‘material fragments’ as ‘clues’ about our ancestors’ experience, ‘their inner lives remain true blanks’ (Russell 2016b). At one point, Cillian decides it’s time he met the Bog Girl’s family, so he takes a ferry from the island to a museum. He scans the museum’s labels, which attempt to give context to the ‘pickled bodies from the Iron Age’, but is unsatisfied by these attempts to ‘surmise’ details about the ancestors’ lives based on material detail alone (Russell 2016:a). Their bodies are ‘fetally scrolled’ (Russell 2016a), suggesting that screeds more of history are inscribed on their skin like ink upon scrolls, a literal blending of flesh and text. The inadequacy of the museum labels allows Cillian to continue his fantasy that the Bog Girl appeared for him alone, that she ‘was an alien from a planet that nobody alive could visit—the planet Earth, in the first century A.D.’ (Russell 2016a); none of the other ancestors stir the same emotion as the Bog Girl. Love becomes a token, a talisman of magical power: ‘He told no one his theory but polished it inside his mind like an amulet: it was his love that was protecting her’ (Russell 2016a).
Russell’s narrative sustains this fantasy, resisting the natural outcome which would be the Bog Girl’s rapid decomposition upon exposure to air. This commitment to a magical realist effect allows her to explore problems of intimacy and otherness, which relate deeply to ecological issues. Take the bog itself. Russell describes it as a primitive hole, the ‘watery mires where the earth yawns open’, a place where time is suspended by a ‘spell of chemical protection’ which prevents the decomposition of matter: ‘Growth is impossible, and death cannot complete her lean work’ (2016a). Her rendering of the bog is crucial to the story for its associations with the suspended temporality embodied in the Bog Girl. We are told that much of the peat is cut away to turf, a key energy source still used by the islanders, and ‘nobody gives much thought to the fuel’s mortuary origins’ (Russell 2016a). Death, a haunting presence seemingly without telos, lingers in the earth, in the home; the Bog Girl weirdly embodies our paradoxical relationship to natural fuel sources: we consume them to produce energy, but our consuming instigates the loop of destruction—de-energising the earth—pumping poisons and coagulating into new forms of deadly matter. The peat bogs are a kind of charnel ground, already containing the detritus of bodies and time in a ‘disturbing intimacy […] that exists beyond being and non-being’ (Morton 2009: 76). The bogs are both ‘shit’ and ‘fuel’ (Russell 2016a), embodying the waste we must expel to maintain presence and order; but also refusing this separation, stickily gluing us through interdependence (the islanders need it for fuel) just like those slimy things reminding the mariner of mortality.
Moreover, the introduction to the bog includes the narrator’s address to the reader, the only such address in the story. The narrator remarks of the island, ‘it’s unlikely that you’ve ever visited. It’s not really on the circuit’. This seemingly throwaway comment interpellates (in Althusser’s sense of the word as a ‘hailing’ of subjectivity within ideology) the reader as a global consumer, whose ‘circuit’ references a sort of capitalist freeway (the places we drift through for pleasure) as much as it slyly hints at the cycles of life/death which are interrupted in the text. From the start, we are made to feel as outsiders in this community, which is self-consciously established as a wasteland of sorts, off the circuit, the beaten track; a charnel ground for exploring the mystical possibilities of strangeness and ecological intimacy.
What’s more, her association with primitivism and death links the Bog Girl to the past in a way that is queer, that disrupts the reproductive logic of heteronormative capitalism, a disruption that Cillian welcomes. Cillian ‘imagined, with a strange joy, the narrow life’ he and the Bog Girl ‘would lead. No children, no sex, no messy nights vomiting outside bars, no unintended pregnancies […] no promises’ (Russell 2016a). Note again that word, ‘strange’. The Bog Girl’s body is bounded; she will never consume nor produce waste, will never reproduce to bring more consumers upon the earth; with her, Cillian shrugs off the lusty masculinity of the ‘mouth-breathers’ (Russell 2016a) who help dig up the Bog Girl, he deviates from the established gender norms. Indeed, Cillian’s docility, his placid detachment from the rugged rural manliness of those who surround him (personified most perfectly in his uncle, who refers to the Bog Girl as a ‘cougar’ and has ‘a thousand beers’ laid out for himself at dinner) renders Cillian a queer figure, ‘so kind, so intelligent, so unusual, so sensitive—such an outlier in the Eddowis family that his aunts had paid him the modern compliment of assuming that he was gay’ (Russell 2016a).
Yet while the Bog Girl embodies a queer backwardness, more specifically she offers an openness of temporality, a strange oscillation between past and future rather than an obsessional projection towards the future. Derrida (1994) explains the promise as bound up in the logic of messianism, the guarantee of the future to-come of some saving force that would sweep up history. Remember the religious breathlessness which narrates Cillian’s discovery of the Bog Girl: ‘The bog had confessed her’ (Russell 2016a), as if she were a message passed on from a Neolithic age. Yet Cillian is oblivious to the fact that his love is itself the promise of an (unspeakable) secret, a promise of a present without future, a seamless overlapping of present and a past that can never again be as time demands its rupture, the Event of her eventual, unexpected awakening. The silence between them, the Bog Girl’s inability to speak, indicates his sense that love can be their pre-linguistic communication, an avowal without trace; but this originary language is impossible:
Invented for the genealogy of what has not happened and the event of which will have been absent, leaving only negative traces of itself in what makes history, such a pre-originary language does not exist. It is not even a preface, a foreword, a lost language of origin. It can only be a language of arrival or rather of the future (une langue d’arrivée ou plutôt d’avenir), a promised sentence, a language of the other, again, but entirely other than the language of the other as language of master or coloniser [and now I emphasise], although the two of them can sometimes announce between them, keeping them in secret or holding them in reserve, so many troubling resemblances.
(Derrida 1998: 61)
This ‘language of the other’ breaks down the classically patriarchal imposition of telos and closure upon the Bog Girl: she will be his forever faithful silent Angel in the House; that is, until she starts speaking. Cillian’s aphasia, ‘a stutter that had been corrected at the state’s expense’ (Russell 2016a), hints at his own problematised presence in the text, since commonly we associate speech with presence. He lacks the authoritative Word, is himself described as a queerish glitch in (human) nature, a ‘thin, strange boy’, ‘once a bug-eyed toddler’, whose grownup, ‘celery-green eyes’ (Russell 2016a) bely an inherent connection to both land and water—there’s a suggestion of his slightness, his precarious and translucent appearance in the world. The mutuality of recognised love he comprehends with the Bog Girl is this ‘secret’ which excludes his mother and friends, which makes others jealous; and yet it is also a source of troubling disruption, the threat that emerges in the master/servant dynamic symbolised by the noose round the Bog Girl’s neck, which Cillian tightens as his ‘fantasy life’ grows deeper (Russell 2016a). And what is ‘the language of arrival’? It is the Bog Girl’s coming-to-life, her messianic resurrection into present existence.
The irony of the story is that Cillian and indeed all the human characters in the story failed to predict this resurrection. The Bog Girl is adored or feared precisely because she skims with death; the body-conscious girls at Cillian’s school are ‘jealous of how little she ate’, the vice-principal sees her as shedding ‘an exciting new perspective on our modern life’ through her contrasting connection to the past (at this moment, the Bog Girl ‘had slumped into his aloe planter’), the fear among Cillian’s mother and aunts is that she will drag him away from the safety net of respectable surveillance: ‘“I’m afraid,”’ Gillian, the mother, confesses, ‘“if I put her out of the house, he’ll leave with her”’ (Russell 2016a). There is no suggestion of the Bog Girl’s autonomy here; rather, she is seen as embodying a terrifying strangeness that might contaminate ‘innocent’ Cillian. But then she wakes up. Her ‘radish-red’ lashes are vegetable (in the sense of passivity and organic matter) companions to Cillian’s ‘celery-green eyes’ (Russell 2016a); she too is an earthling, bound to the bog in an inexplicably deep, mournful way. Her awakening is erotic, marked by ‘a blush of primal satisfaction’; it is only at this point that their relationship emerges fully into what Donna Haraway calls that of companion species, whose interdependence is based on mutuality, in ‘forbidden conversation’ (Haraway 2008: 16). Haraway says of her relationship to her canine friend:
I’m sure our genomes are more alike than they should be. Some molecular record of our touch in the codes of living will surely leave traces in the world, no matter that we are each reproductively silenced females, one by age and choice, one by surgery without consultation. […] We have had forbidden conversation; we have had oral intercourse; we are bound in telling story on story with nothing but the facts. We are training each other in acts of communication we barely understand. We are, constitutively, companion species. We make each other up, in the flesh. Significantly other to each other, in specific difference, we signify in the flesh a nasty developmental infection called love. This love is a historical aberration and a naturalcultural legacy
(Haraway 2008: 16).
It is only when the Bog Girl awakens that the relationship becomes properly ‘in the flesh’; she has learned the communion of erotic love, is ‘tugging at his boxers’, but at this point Cillian is tipped into the abyss of signifying rupture: ‘something truly terrifying had happened: she loved him back’ (Russell 2016a). The nasty developmental infection called love’ rips apart his perfect communion of static silence. The Bog Girl’s language ‘was no longer spoken anywhere on earth’, it is a primitive cry from the depths of the peatlands, which Cillian cannot answer because he is indifferent to the Other as anything more than his own anthropocentric projection: ‘The past, with its monstrous depth and span, reached toward him, demanding an understanding that he simply could not give’ (Russell 2016a). We might think of the title from Jonathan Bate’s crucial ecological polemic, The Song of the Earth (2000), or a strange, aberrant passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), where a vagrant woman whose ‘rude’ mouth is a ‘rusty pump’ (signifying, perhaps, the decay of industry, its material crudeness) singing a song of ‘love which has lasted a million years’ (Woolf 2004: 70-71). The idea of song suggests an ambient music that stretches onwards without climax and fall, echoing past and future in its rasping cry. The eerie, anthropomorphic crackles, growls, roars and howls that come from the ice in The Ancient Mariner. What would the earth sound like, speaking back? Surely it would be our own cry, endlessly deferred; the echolalia of life forms caught in this experience together, entangled in the rendering of a dark and dying world.
In many ways, the Bog Girl is animal, Other; she is not quite human. Better then to think of her as someone who embodies the terrifying intimacy of all life-forms, which brush up against one another, bearing their various sensations and temporalities. While the mariner comes to admire those gross ‘slimy things’, noting their ‘rich attire’ and blessing them with a whiff of Romantic kitsch as ‘happy living things!’ (Coleridge 2015), Cillian finds himself caught between the Bog Girl’s world and his own, ‘struggling to pay attention to his droning contemporaries in the cramped classroom’ (Russell 2016a). Referring to his classmates as ‘contemporaries’ reinforces their association with the present; juxtaposing with Cillian’s mournful retracing of steps, back ‘to the lip of the bog’ (Russell 2016a), the word ‘lip’ suggesting both spatial liminality and the erotic possibility of the temporal and primordial lacuna that lies within. We can think of the Bog Girl as what Morton (2010: 41) calls the ‘strange stranger’, a word for all life-forms which encapsulates the way that even those closest to us are inherently weird, because they remind us that we are not wholly ourselves, that we too are composites of life-forms, viral code, enmeshments of DNA.
Although the Bog Girl always seems close—we get vivid details of her ‘rhinestone barettes’, her ‘face which was void of all judgement’ (Russell 2016a))—indeed she becomes a vital component of Cillian’s life, ultimately he is forced to realise her absolute strangeness. Unlike the mariner he is unable to overcome that gap of Otherness and make peace with the uncanny experience of the ecological mesh. He goes down, enticed by the ‘lip’ of the bog, listening for the ‘primitive eloquence’ of ‘the air-galloping insects continu[ing] to speak the million syllables of [the Bog Girl’s] name’ (Russell 2016a). At the end, the narrative becomes ambient, with a distortion of inside/outside, self/other:
“Ma! Ma! Ma!” That night, Cillian came roaring out of the dark, pistoning his knees as he ran for the light, for his home at the edge of the boglands. “Who was that?”
My immediate assumption here is that Cillian is calling “Ma!” for his mother, a riff on the Irish references of the piece which are probably a nod to Seamus Heaney’s Bog Poems (1975). However, it’s not clear; elsewhere she is usually referred to with the Americanism, “Mom”. Cillian himself has adopted a primitive roar, which rips through the resonant chorus of insects as if refusing their incantations of the Bog Girl’s presence. The call for the mother seems vaguely directed, a generalised cry for help rising from pure terror as he runs for the light. ‘“Who was that?”’, embedded in the same line, seems to come from Cillian, but equally it could come from his mother back home, or even the boglands themselves, watching this skinny boy run off from the darkness. A mutual sharing of strangeness. This is an affective, fleshly and sensuous experience of horror that the written texts, the museum labels, cannot document. There is always a possible slippage, which Russell literalises in the Bog Girls’ figure. Nature has betrayed its accident, the glitched intrusion of the prehistoric past upon a modern present. While Red Desert more overtly projects the ecological breakdown of the external world through the increasingly disordered mind of its female protagonist, ‘The Bog Girl’ leaves us with an unsettling vision of lingering presence: the insects singing the elegy of her name, a name which tremors, sends nightmares to Cillian, which resonates with the bog, itself a microcosm of a wasting, gurgling, plundered world. Is this a haunted logic for future coexistence? We’ll have to take the plunge to find out…it’s going to be dark, sticky and maybe dangerous…
Bennington, Geoffrey, 2004. Other Analyses: Reading Philosophy (Bennington Books).
The weather turns, ineluctable as that mist that mysteriously fogs up my glasses (Footnote: Why do I wear glasses? Something a man once said about parallax and the need for clarity of distance, the reassurance of one’s own substance). The city is a haze of something else today, foreign as a postcard marred with scratches of time and travel. Must I always be up to my neck in vapour, in unfinished melodies? They always catch: grooves on a record, gum on the pavement, hair snagged in a glue binding, specific as a bookmark; melody after melody. The notation would be very messy. I’m picturing spaghetti-tangles of quavers, misplaced on the staves with no home of their own. What of this note? oOoOooooooooOOOooOooaaAAAaaaaaAaoo……. Does it belong in the sonic realm of an F#? The problem is, I picture my life in A minor, every time. The soaring long echo of a siren call; so sad, so sad. Picture this, pretty fake glass vase, all containers of vapour, elaborated with black-printed Celtic patterns, impenetrable as ersatz ~internet~ Japanese.
One attempt at pottery is quite the attained luxury. I think I will try out something new. The raising of a blue hand in order to trace the pulse of purple veins. Not too bad for a hologram. This is sweet and clear and maybe okay. Like walking past the graveyard of pines. Must I call it that? Too long it has been since I’ve trailed through a cemetery. A habit picked up from my grandmother, I glance at the old headstones, my brain knotting in each line and crack and crumble. I forget dates; they fall away. When you realise that you are walking a few feet above the bodies of dead people, your heart does a turn and slips to your stomach. The ground is so soft and mossy. Flesh is a good fertiliser, it spreads lush bright vitamins to the soil. In fact, it might be quite nice to lie down in and dream.
If I slept in a graveyard, would I have reveries that channel the dead? It’s a distinct possibility, the amount of fragmentary matter that must float in the air like electricity. The hormone we release when we die: dimethyltryptamine, DMT. They say it makes us see fairies, elves and tunnels of light. Lost soulmates dwindling in the twining of shining limbs. Silver rings in a stranger’s nose. Near death, the liminal weirdness of the world crosses its own boundary. No wonder I have always loved the word psychotropic, its connotations of a spliced brain opening out like a Polly Pocket to uncover an island of swaying purple palms, a guava pink sea, an assortment of oozing neon beads. This great, gritty, sparkling geode. Would a brain like that bleed? Do brains in general even bleed? The lavish quality of this vision is undoubtedly a product of sugar cravings. The dangerous dip, the faint-headedness. Our bodies being an assortment of chemicals, it’s only natural that the synapses of our minds produce very queer imaginings indeed.
Pineal gland: essence of palm. The oil extract no longer lucrative in worldwide trade, though popular, cheap and downright nasty. Spread it on bread like honey and sweeten. It makes things swell, tighten.
Things to desire: serotonin, colour, daylight. There was a time where I substituted existence for an array of colours, the kind that come straight out the packet. The need for something pure and vivid, so vivid as to seem utterly distilled of all trace matter, was completely upon me. Splat after splat after splat. I could have squirted that colour on my tongue and hoped for the same result of a manic acid trip. I wanted to see the gravestones melt, the names shimmer and vaguely disappear, leaving scraps and lingerings of unfinished letters. Is it possible, really, that some expert kneeled in the moss and carved those names so beautifully?
Crack open the sky over the sea and tell me what you see. The bold aroma of a rainbow comes quickly and glows like some other sun is ripening behind it. A pale blue sun, perhaps, stolen from Mercury. Planets out there, swapping their radiations of time. Down below, the ocean groans under globules of oil, fat black spills which ooze and spread. Each secretion has its location hidden; sometimes gushing, sometimes slowly swirling. I think of butter melting into chocolate, ink being marbled in gelatinous jam. The favourite taste, all bonfires of strawberry. Some god is spinning the water with a cocktail stick, languid and bored like a hungry person in a bar, waiting for love. We hallucinate, don’t you see? There is a complete quality to what comes next, the fiery upturning of all this trace matter. Waste. Be flamboyant as an artwork. You pinch the thin skin of each of my fingers and the lightning shoots right through me.
Things to desire: rock pools of igneous glass, starfish, the dying white rose at the side of a grave.
I hear the knell from far away. Such tocsins call me back from the realm of the dead, though I am happy here, my body breaking down into succulent little pieces. The woman opposite me mutters litanies to herself; stickily, as if each word were cheaply enthroned in lipstick. Is there work still to be done? These days, I mix the colours. I like to see the vibrancy break down, meld into subtler hues, details you see only up close. The paint sticks in my brushes, the glitter of light in my lashes. It’s not mystifying anymore. The greyish haze is my outpourings of smoke, enough to cover the whole skyline, swallowing up what good is left of tomorrow. I inhale matter in wholes and halves. Like yesterday, it will be black (the city, that is): gilded, ink-ridden, brilliantly viscous. A whole ocean will roll from the distance and its golden ore will cover us, just so many bubbles of oil pasting our brains. For now, it rains.
I scroll down my Facebook timeline, and there is a photograph of a pavement – on a real street which I recognise – and on that pavement is a Pidgey. You know, the wee brownish flying thing from first generation Pokémon? I scroll down a bit more and folk have been out and about all over the place: there’s a Weedle on the gingham tablecloth in a cafe, a wee purple-grey Nidoran on a hay bale, a Magikarp bouncing around by the Kelvin. This is, if you haven’t guessed already, people sharing their spoils from Pokémon Go, an augmented reality game which allows you to catch Pokémon in the wild, a.k.a real life. There was a glorious month in the summer when you could go for a walk and see clusters of people milling around with their phones in the air, as if trying to channel some ethereal spirit that was wafting in the atmosphere. They were out catching Pokémon. All of a sudden, people were going for walks again, leaving the house and the cosy glow of the television to catch invisible beasties who lived in trees and parks, museums and street corners.
As a kid, I was an avid Pokémon fan. I missed the boat for Red and Blue but had Yellow, Ruby, Sapphire, Leaf Green for my Game Boy Colour and Advance and played them all to death. What I loved more than the battles was the wandering part. So much of your time is taken up pushing your way through long grass, cycling along seaside promenades, bobbing along the ocean, taking shortcuts through forests, crossing through dungeons, traversing the plains of mountains and deserts. You’re constantly interrupted by Pokémon encounters; so much so that often you double back in confusion, any instrumental pathway you’re trying to take disrupted by the screen switch to a battle. The towns often had such picturesque names as ‘Petalburg City’, ‘Sootopolis City’, ‘Lilycove City’ and ‘Mossdeep City’. Then there’s Meteor Falls, the Sunken Ship and Sky Pillar – these are just from Ruby/Sapphire alone. Yes, the game has a final purpose: you’re supposed to beat the gym leaders of every town and follow some convoluted let’s beat Team Rocket narrative, but often its trajectory is beautifully non-linear. You can explore, catch Pokémon in your own time, find side quests to achieve, people who need help. Acquire potions, level up your Pokémon, learn intriguing stories from local mythology.
There is an obsessiveness to Pokémon, a desire to always repeat. As much as possible, you find yourself returning to previous towns and locations, either to seek out more Pokémon known to appear in the area or simply to explore, to see what you’ve missed. Invariably, you do nothing new, and manage to enjoy that process of wandering again. You fight the same Pokémon, hoping they will flee but secretly enjoying taking them down in one shot with your level 40 team, where once you’d have to fight tooth and nail with a goddamn Zubat. To some extent, Pokémon is a rhizomatic game: once you get to a certain stage, the world is yours to explore and you can map out your own routes and lines of flight as you see fit, flying and sailing and seeking locations of your choosing. However, you are still governed with the impulse of narrative, which spurs you onto particular places: sometimes you can’t move on till you’ve beaten the gym leader of that town, for example. You can regress, but not progress. There’s that sort of macho narrative of levelling up which you’re impelled to follow. It’s only when you’ve completed the game that you can reap the rewards of complete exploring.
Pokémon Go changes that. By transferring Pokémon to real life, you are as free to explore its terrain as you are to wander the streets of your local town or city, or indeed the plains of the countryside. Real life is transformed by augmented reality, the imposition of Pokémon on material space. Creatures that only the player, holding up her phone, can see. This is already getting very Black Mirror, but wait. It’s a competitive game, yes, but there aren’t the drastic consequences of social exclusion and alienation experienced by many of Black Mirror’s tech addicts. There is a lovely playfulness to Pokémon Go which somehow has generally avoided becoming cutthroat competition. For a while, everyone was playing it. It was a form of camaraderie (folk would go out in packs to hunt for Pokémon, or indeed organise mass hunting expeditions via Facebook). More time was being spent on the Pokémon Go app than on Snapchat, Twitter and Whatsapp. I’d go into the kitchen at work and the chefs would gleefully show off their Pokédex; which was glorious, seeing all those familiar creatures again in this new and surprising context. And since chefs have hardly a moment’s time when they’re not in the same place, working 14 hour shifts at a time, I can only imagine the extent to which people in other walks of life played it.
Pokémon Go is a strange way of making people notice their surroundings, particularly in the sense of urban space. Sure, most of the time their faces are glued to the maps on their phone screens, but in placing themselves in the world, they are forced to confront physical structures, obstacles, windows, private property and so on. It becomes even more of a game when you have to work out how to attain Pokémon in elusive locations. I’ve heard stories about folk knocking on your door asking if they could come in because they’ve noticed you’ve got a rare Pokémon in your house. It sounds pretty sinister, but it shows the level of commitment the game inspires.
Think of it this way: why is it so addictive? Like Tinder, it’s a form of locative media which uses your GPS to determine who or what will appear in your surroundings. Pokémon Go also uses your phone clock, as different types of Pokémon appear at different times of day. I’m reminded here of one of my favourite games, Animal Crossing,where you could go fishing and bug-catching but what was out there was determined by the ‘real time’ of your Game Boy’s internal clock. It followed the real time of a 24 hour day, of the seasons and so on, so that in December there’d be snow and falling leaves in autumn. It was very beautiful and the real time aspect has an addictive quality. I think it’s because the game becomes less a form of escapism and more a parallel to reality, to everyday life. You know it’s reached that status when The Mirror runs a how-to guide, eh?
What’s so cool about Pokémon Go is how it adds meaning to real space. A school, town hall, park or pub becomes a Pokémon Gym and everyone wants to visit. I swear business at my work improved for a month as we quickly realised we were a Pokémon Gym and groups of sullen young adults would gather silently at bar tables, trying to battle other trainers at the gym and hoping to win Pokécoins. A guy I work with would heavily protest when he saw someone playing the game because he was currently gym champion and got surly at the prospect of newcomers taking his title. If I was late bringing someone a coffee, nervous they’d be grumpy with me, often they were so distracted by the game that they’d not even noticed the time. In a sense then, Pokémon Go transforms both time and space. Everything is flattened into a map, where flashing nodes indicating Pokémon are the symbols of desire, the objects of pursuit.
In a compelling, complex and challenging article on Facebook as a ‘desire-network’, Maria-Daniella Dick and Robbie McLaughlin argue that ‘Facebook effects a mutation in desire and thus in capitalism’, and in tandem with this, a ‘historical shift inn the relationship between psychoanalysis and capitalism’ (Dick and McLaughlin 2013). With Facebook, ‘desire remains impossible to satiate, but it is now without object’ (Dick and McLaughlin 2013). They suggest that Facebook is situated within the Lacanian Imaginary order (which constitutes the intrinsic narcissism through which the human subject constructs fantasy images of both herself and her object of desire). According to Lacan, desire (unlike need) is always unfulfilled; we are always moving towards a lack, the anxiety prompted by something lost (as in the child’s original sense of wholeness before discovering the fragmentation of her parts, the split between her body and world and mother, in the mirror). The Imaginary is that which we create to attempt to fill that fundamental gap, the fantasies of the ‘ideal ego’ which compensate for an originary loss. Facebook is basically the ultimate web of the Imaginary: all our time is spent scrawling through pictures and statuses and shared media which all in various ways represent fragments of the ideal selves we project online. Yet our browsing is ultimately without end, it is ceaselessly rhizomatic, decentralised; we end up on one place, a restaurant page or old friend’s profile, without really knowing how we got there. Our passage through the network is governed by algorithms which attempt to map our desires; algorithms which are self-sustained by users’ input data, the patterns of usage recorded with every click. While this may seem revolutionary, a democratic decentering of the system, Dick and McLaughlin are highly sceptical of Facebook’s subversive potential at the scale of the political.
While the likes of Facebook were integral in the organising of such glocalised (global/local) revolutionary events as the Arab Spring or the Occupy Movement, ultimately ‘[s]ocial networking completely embodies and facilitates these phenomena in which the masses are now able to organise efficiently but without being unified by a radical ideological alternative’ (Dick and McLaughlin 2013). The fragmentary pathways of Facebook map out the lines of insidious liberal democracy, and as engrained as they are in corporate culture (the corporation itself becoming the medium for mass communication) offer little opportunity for imagining visionary alternatives to liberal capitalism. Crucially, Facebook (with all its user-directed interfaces based on algorithms of taste and so on) perpetuates the myth of the liberal individual, who curates her profile, her tastes, conducts a life of many choices. As Dick and McLaughlin (2013) put it: ‘[t]he so-called 99% are already conditioned by a liberal democracy in which they have the self-identical sovereignty of an individualistic ideology that places the subject at the centre of the world’. To really offer a vision for an alternative future, we have to actually come up with a plan. Recognise that we are always-already networked individuals, whose subjectivities are hardly unique and instead constituted through structures of discourse and power, and use this in a positive way, to undermine the liberal justifications for free-market capitalism.
What does all this have to do with Pokémon Go? The thing is, Pokémon Go seems like innocent child’s play, but it’s bound up in the politics of space. It’s fundamentally structured by GPS software and urban space, and let’s face it, urban space is always ideological. Whether it’s homeless spikes, shiny new glass-fronted apartments built where Brutalist high-rises used to be, gated communities, the psychotic disarray of London’s property market, the genuine promotion of American Psycho-style yuppie-targeting ads or simply the denigration of social housing as ‘slum housing’, space and architecture is always somehow political. In a recent talk given at the University of Glasgow titled ‘Remembering the Future: The Politics of Space and Architecture’, Darran Anderson argued that the current failure of the Left is a failure to put forward a vision of the future that is compelling and actually positive; if we don’t act soon then someone else (i.e. Donald Trump and his cronies) will determine the future for us. One way Anderson proposes we can intervene in the social order is through architecture, by building sustainable forms of urban space, housing and energy production that take into account the fact that we are living in the Anthropocene. We need to accept the imminence of ecological disasters, which are indeed already happening. Oh how Trump hates those windfarms. We need to rethink our fantasy imagery of the city; it needs to become a network of playful imagination, of empowerment, rather than just passive defeat, or the kind of share-lite politics, browsing, blasé escapism and distraction offered by Facebook.
What is interesting about Pokémon Go is that it restores to some extent the object of desire, which Facebook, in its endless networks of people, places, photos and check-ins, displaces. ‘With Facebook’, Dick and McLaughlin (2013) argue, ‘people no longer live the present as present; it exists only insofar as it is exists to be recorded and later uploaded to Facebook’. This temporal displacement shifts with Pokemon Go, which insists on the present as present. Pokémon only appear for a limited amount of time so the imperative is to catch them in the game space of the now. The impulse of shopping or clubbing to buy buy buy or drink drink drink is gleefully interrupted by the appearance of Pokémon, who are quickly snapped up and snapped, shared online. The allure of ‘cool’ or the aura of dreamlike consumption attached to consumption-based social places is disrupted by the childlike logic of the game. And there’s nothing the companies can really do about it, since technically Pokémon isn’t intruding on reality, it’s only intruding on maps of reality. Now I’m thinking of that Jorge Luis Borges story, ‘On Exactitude in Science’ (1946), and getting very confused about reality itself. In the story, Borges imagines an empire where cartography has become so exact that its map of the empire must match in size and detail the empire itself—after which, what’s the difference between the map and the original? Do you need the map anymore, or can you use real space to map out real (map?) space?
There is almost something a tad Situationist about Pokémon Go. It offers no restrictions on movement, the way the Game Boy games do, according to a linear narrative. If you want that elusive Vulpix or Meowth, perhaps you will have to explore territories previously uncharted in your running app or Instagram places map. You might end up in the strange end of town. And what will you find when you get there? Traversing space this way leads to opportunities of surprise and discovery. The fact that so many people are posting photos of their Pokémon Go encounters online adds a new palimpsest of meaning to our understanding of place. The appearance of Pokémon disrupts the order of cities; it adds new points of desire to the map. Sure, most gyms are in tourist hotspots, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to explore the more unseemly areas of town to catch ‘em all. In wandering out your comfort zone, you’re enacting a sort of De Certeauian ‘tactic’, resisting the signage and flows of capital which generally direct your movement in urban space (i.e. according to the circuit-like lure of the shops, the home or workplace). Ironically, you’re doing this at the inspiration of a global corporation (the folks who own the Pokémon Go app), but in this case, it doesn’t necessarily mean your actions and movements aren’t subversive. Nevertheless, the transgression of space according to augmented reality is unfortunately still bound by societal racism, highlighting the fact that we experience space differently according to who we are—despite its best intentions and possibilities, a game like Pokémon Go can hardly overthrow the prejudices of the Repressive State Apparatus…
Since Pokémon Go is based mostly on algorithms of mapped information, there is an element of chance which escapes the systems of data (could we call this glitch a Lacanian intrusion of the Real?). Pokémon crop up in controversial places. Since ghost Pokémon are attracted to graveyards and places of mourning (think: the original Lavender Town), they have been appearing in places like the Holocaust Memorial or Ground Zero. The incongruity of the playful critters in these places of silence and solemnity is startling and forces us to rethink our expectations of memorialising space. In a sense then, for better and worse, Pokémon Go has a reterritorialising impulse. Sure, you can report inappropriate places and instigate a process for removing them from the Pokémon Go map, but that initial appearance, based on some kind of algorithmic randomness, has already violated the implicit expectations of such places in terms of silent respect and mourning. There is in a sense an overflow of the gaming impulse, where the augmented reality becomes more distracting than reality itself (even when you are in such a compelling and startling location as the Holocaust Memorial…).
Perhaps this is the danger then, of supplanting a fictional reality (the map) for the territory itself. I’m thinking of the protagonist in Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder (2005), whose response to trauma is to assemble a detailed map of a very specific retrieved memory, based in a house where there was a very specific synaesthetic symphony of liver-frying, cats on roofs, piano playing and motorbike clanging. Eventually this map is transferred to the ‘real’ as the protagonist recreates mimetically the details of this spatial memory. Yet pursuit of the real is addictive; the protagonist soon begins recreating more extreme and harrowing memories he’s encountered: traffic accidents, bank robberies. What intrudes, eventually, is the remainder: the real itself which spills out of the recreated event. As McKenzie Wark writes in the preface to McCarthy’s novel, ‘[t]he simulation is never perfect, always in excess of the thing itself. It always leaves a remainder. The most troubling remainder is himself [the protagonist]. He is a leftover God, a God as debris of creation’ (Wark 2015: xi).
In a way, Pokémon Go represents a God-like desire to reconfigure reality, to impose the Imaginary space of the simulated game upon the ‘game’ of ordinary existence. Is this a postmodern statement of irony, a pastiche of 1990s nostalgia in the age of the smartphone? Yes, and no. There’s something kind of modernist and sincere about it too, a sense of genuine interest in creating the Big Project, a utopian potential for gaming to bring people together. While Pokémon Go is partly about earning currency (Pokécoins) to buy more materials which help level up Pokémon or revive them during battle, its general impulse is towards exploration. Conquering, yes, to an extent; but mostly exploration. What happens when you’ve captured every Pidgey in your neighbourhood? You travel farther, maybe even beyond your hometown or city. Of course there comes a point where most of us get bored and stop playing, but there was a moment when the game genuinely seemed to interrupt reality in a way that felt genuinely liberating. The fact that so many people deemed it silly, a waste of time and completely illogical only highlights the ways in which the game resists the general instrumentalism of capitalism (i.e. every minute should be spent doing something useful, like finding ways of accumulating money and furthering one’s career). The time wasting aspect, the fact that so many people love its paean to repetition (you can walk the same route every day and still get different Pokémon appearing), is a queer sort of logic; it goes against capitalism’s futurity, the linear progression of temporality, in favour of a kind of maddening impulse of looping, overlapping desire. We accumulate the same Pokémon several times and this is part of the internal logic of the game, compelling us to traverse the various spaces again and again. It represents at once the immateriality of twenty-first capitalism (as based on flows of ‘invisible’ capital and immaterial goods, symbols of status) and the potential for subverting the logic of accumulation to one that is both bizarre and based on the ethics of play rather than success.
Sure, a great deal of the game might be about levelling up and being the best, but you can also play it with general disregard to those impulses. Collecting, in a sense, transforms the use-value of goods by placing them in a new circuit of information, taking them from the marketplace to the geeky world of the collector, whose interest in based on details and aesthetics, often more than financial worth. Just look at what happens when someone tries to make money off becoming a hire-out Pokémon Go trainer: they are threatened with being banned from the game, since it violates their code of ethics/terms of service. Play, rather than capital, is at the heart of the game’s map of trajectories. It brings people together – even adults – in a space of play. I’m not saying it’s changed the world by any means, and indeed it has its slightly absurd but very real dangers, as people blithely ignore the potential perils of the real landscape in pursuit of the desired (simulated) object, like Icarus flying too close to the sun…However, there’s something genuinely refreshing about how Pokémon Go forces us to reconfigure our sense of reality, space and the routing of our desires and movement. While world-views are shrinking and narrowing in post-Brexit times, Pokémon Go reminds us of the value of expanding our horizons and getting up to just go and wander, maybe aimlessly.
There will always be moral panics over deaths from selfie-taking, planking and cavorting in dangerous places, but will there be anything quite like Pokémon Go?
(other references are hyperlinked in the text)
Anderson, Darran, 2016. ‘Remembering the Future: The Politics of Space and Architecture’, Lilybank House Seminar Room, University of Glasgow, 15th November 2016.
De Certeau, Michel, 2011. The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press).