N A R C O P A S T O R A L
(written between 1-4am, in the mood of Gilded Dirt)
‘No shepherd, no pastoral’ — Leo Marx
Let us begin at the dawn of the internet. A story of packet networking, government departments, protocol suites and business decisions made in the cloaked, air-conditioned hum of boardrooms. No, this is boring. Let us fall three stories through the hyperlinked portals of a Tumblr archive, our minds caught in the dopamine rush; nothing comparable. These colours, the bronzed flesh of beautiful strangers (who aren’t even models!)! A doubling of exclamation, a doubling of desire. I have crushed many harmless cartons of Ribena while thinking of your sweetly dripping smile. Talk to me O Web, nobody else will; I see only a shrouded reality, the silken flickers of a screen-bleached veil. Who leads the flock of the blind and hungry teenagers? What possible elaboration of data could draw them to utopias lost like that early neutrality of the net? Innocence perhaps is always (already?) fallen.
Why haven’t you replied to my text?
Derrida says everything is text. There is no outside-text. Look around you.
You know what I fucking mean.
All interaction is destined for a meme. History is full of them. Literature is interaction; the inevitable touching of finger and ink, perception and paper. Barthes says: ‘Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.’ I wish I’d written it on a postcard, instead of an internet bulletin. My god as if they even still called it that. Nothing one has to say earns the vital status of ‘bulletin’. It is all just discourse, levelled out, dank reality. Everything feels intimate and yet completely odd, alien, pointless. What was it Barthes found so sexy about language? A literal ache that feels like love, drawn to some other’s inward beam, the first brush against them, the leaf-like trembling. I’m writing crazy amounts and what brings me back to that electric surface is perhaps realising that everything underneath, every word I type, is basically at the core just binary. Night and day, will he notice me? Night and day, the rhythm passing through me, oozing.
Hell, I’m a millennial with minimum job security; whatever a quotidian rhythm is I’ve long since lost it with the bleed of light that steals through my blinds as I make my way into sleep. Too much coffee. The room an indigo blue of burst-through dawn. The birds are all around me, a whole garden full of them. One last time, checking twitter…
The little voices clutter the fields. Nobody is there to guide them; we are bound instead by characters, algorithms. You can’t write about pastoral unless the text in question deals with shepherds. Who are the shepherds of the internet? Perhaps we are, perhaps it is the panoptic site where we all gather, Pagan-like, earnest embrace of all illusory interfaces. Are we blind, clad in white, always in the service of our sheep? Endlessly tempting…We play lyres and sing earnestly of our unrequited love; we do it in the hallowed gardens of YouTube, where Blake would write of our purest impulses. We used to play quite happily among the shallow folds, so sweet in our greenness, uploading silly videos; we used to play before everything was just fucking advertising: ‘binding with briars, my joys & desires’. An ad for perfume, a woman’s throat in a chain-link choker. Advert for absinthe. Poison ivy crawls all over us and language just feels like a virus; I guess it’s because I’m well-acquainted with the dark work of coding. Underneath every word is the binary bleep, and I can’t help but think of sheep lost out in the cold. Life/death; the trajectories of rebirth. White and black; white on black, little white bodies in the black of the night. She will have a lamb and call it Microsoft.
You know what I…mean. (?)
Our generation are all lost sheep. How many times have the fences broken in the fields of the internet? What we crave isn’t freedom exactly—O how passé the frontier motif!—but some sort of comfort, a shelter from the barbed experience of the IRL everyday. Unstable jobs, cackling media, unrealistic body image etc etc. I made a list but every time the words compressed into et al, like I no longer needed the details. I wanted to draw back into something simpler; the garden of Eden being this nostalgic collection of nineties net art and noughties graphics, the kind of vibrant geometries you might find plastered over somebody’s Geocities. I gave up thinking my shepherd was Julian Assange, or some other white-faced genius set to wreck the world with his erasable visions of freedom.
We are in need of soothing. Gosh, Laura Marling even wrote a song about it. My God is brooding. I have lost the God. He or she is in a sulk. I retreat into a rhombus, the equilateral remembrance of shadow. My identity was never clear but soon I let it divulge further the strange truths of illusory discourse; let it slip into the sinkholes of forums and chatrooms, all these virtual spaces whose presence filtered through my everyday life. The whole experience overwhelming, of course. The amounting of so many avatars, each one a horcrux scattered beyond the bounds of thought. Becoming monstrous, evolving from beyond consciousness.
We continue to smoke, in defiance of death. How we study with interest the gore that plasters each anonymous cigarette packet: the foetus made of fag ashes, the man curled in cancerous agony upon a hospital bed, the baby absorbing its secondhand pathogens. We campaign for action on climate change yet continue to smoke. We are in this oscillating space; a recognised irony, the metallic taste of hypocrisy stinging our tongues even as we try to move beyond it.
There is a willing naivety in our longing for certain environments. What lush oasis amid the din of our dull city living? What ancient standing stone circle, what temple or gorgeous cathedral? The Hollywood canyons, the plastic palms of a Lana Del Rey video?
There must be also a willing imbibing of the polluted dream. Recognition that this is the Anthropocene; that the world is ending already and we are playing out the last vestiges of our human, our species’ mortality. Living with a kind of negative capability, accepting the state of corrupted beauty. What about the atmospheric acids that streak the sky with alluring tints? How we immortalise, fetishise that pink and orange, even as it signals our climate’s destruction? The damage to the earth moves slow, sinks through the soil, evolves with distorted DNA coding. The trick is to slow down with it, to ease into so many starry, imitation futures.
We must deliver empathy for other beings. We are both shepherd and sheep, guiding the world but also being guided by it; thrown awry at every turn by some new storm or war, some side effect of our reckless living. Consumerism secretly blasts the binary of subject/object, self/environment; quite literally, we become what we eat. I am an ice lolly, melting cherryade on the concrete heat of this too-warm city; my sticky residue is the sexless blood of the starved teenager, the catwalk model, the fearsome and damned. And yet sometimes I stand and smoke and think it means nothing. Saint Jimmy, O endearing memory of Green Day. The photographs on the packet do not remind me of death, but some abstraction of the body at its limits; an art exhibit poised to lift daily habit into the realm of the transmundane. I have waited at so many bus stops, cash points, queued in supermarkets for this.
Every time you snort cocaine I watch the blood burst in tiny wires, the inward capillaries. Somewhere someone is spraying pesticides on a field of coca plants in Mexico. How many times have I helped you with your goddamn nosebleeds?
For I have learned to look on nature, not as in the hour
of my foolish youth, face in the window without name
without name. What was it Wordsworth said
about humanity? That still sad music is the soundtrack
to each brittle burst in the star of my heart. God knows
even in forests and rivers I miss you. Not even wine
is what it once was. Every sunset the colour of salsa,
and each night my tongue burns on the memory of chilli
while you are out there, susurrations of grass
and all the smashed glass you shoved in your fists
was silver petals and the edges crushed with the sap
of my love and I wanted to stick them together again.
Instead, I think about the stomachs of young boys knots with barbed wire. There are too many hormones in the milk they drink. Nobody bothered to nourish the cows. They were too busy caught up in period cramps. Pointless cycles of (un)reproduction.
Narcotic. Narco. That which has a tranquillising effect. Lorde on her new album singing in that sugary octave leap: the rush at the beginning. None of us can sleep without pills, without sex, without ASMR videos. These soothing colours and shapes; the ambient drag of background music, distorting our sense of imploding foreground, dissipating those ugly memories of time and space. All is levelled, all is darkness. We crave oblivion. Sometimes stranger, sometimes easy. We flirt with the past, have this mild addiction to nostalgia. We’re just looking for things to transcend with.
There are times when what is to be said looks out of the past at you—looks out like someone at a window and you in the street as you walk along. Past hours, past acts, take on an uncanny isolation; between them and you who look back on them now there is no continuity.
So begins Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam (1954). Trocchi was a heroin-addict. He knew the all-consuming tranquility of drugs, knew how writing could perform that strange inner split of self. When we write in the mode of the narco pastoral we are being chased by some older version, the 1.0 to our 2.0 dreams. When these memories hover, the girl that floats is never quite yourself. There is the sudden realisation of distinction. How far you have come, how low you plummeted. I am guided by the soporific waltz of a nineties video game. With its labyrinthine pathways I reach for the future–
Here, there’s this new podcast. Follow me. What follows:
Recipe for vapourwave: add the reverb, the transparent semiotics of the checkerboard floor (I fall four stories just to join you in bed), the swaying gif of exotic indoor aloes, the unfinished loop. Resounding, distorting. Casino glitches. Skin-cleansing, refreshing. Try out your luck. Cooper could run for a hundred jackpots. Pick a colour and follow a moodboard of sounds and slowly flowering samples. Imagine the Black Lodge. Watch disembodied relics from the eighties melt on the vinyl floor, down the plexiglass walls, the long-drowning faces superimposed on posters of pop-punk club nights and every neon a symbol for rave’s revival. The first time I listened to Aphex Twin was a bourbon-soaked kiss and somebody had burst glowsticks and flicked the liquid all over my bedroom, so when the lights went out it looked like so many pink and green stars. O holy dibutyl phthlalate, flurophore with your brilliant emission. The clicks and bleeps lived on in the pale yellow stains and in the morning I was suffering.
Early soundtrack of our forebears: Eels – Novacaine for the Soul. Oh my darling / Will you be here? Presentness is in deferral. We wait for each other, always aroused as the constant shivering upsets our nervous system. We crave things that ease the switched on quality, things that split apart the binary, leave us to the oblivion of off, if only temporarily. At least half of us are insomniac, up late waiting for the object of desire to make itself present. When red goes green.
Always online and yet never replies. Everything is text. I read his stream of thought in the run of my bath tap, calculating the relative water wastage in comparison to a daily shower. I wash my hair less and less. Mysterious pains pulse and twist in my ovaries like radio signals struggling to push out to the ether. There will be no fertility here. No flesh or grease. You gave me a pear wrapped in brown paper; but it soured on the window, grew a layer of fairy fur and I offered it to the shrine in my father’s garden—which already I have forgotten. I miss you, it’s clear. Not the grass, not the fine rich taste of its loam. Once I wore daisies in my hair, a long ago dream of a girl from something written by Laurie Lee. The girls then, they were clean and apple-sweet.
Solastalgia: ‘the pain or sickness caused by the loss of, or inability to derive, solace connected to the present state of one’s home environment’ (Glenn Albrecht). I am home, I am centred. My mother’s chair, or whatever. Yet nothing makes sense. I feel this network already filled up with death; I know every moment to be painfully imminent, displaced, the always-already. Even the mice in the piano, the jackdaws cawing in the chimney. Why can I not experience the present? My own soul feels washed up from the future; sometimes I glimpse a world underwater. I glaze over the orbital space of Google Maps, zoom up my street, see a light sabre left in the front garden. Someone flew over before me. The tree is gone; there are brambles sprawled in the driveway, the squashed pampas grass. I know this to be home.
We will move through twelve states to get there again. Hence, 12th World. This was concocted at the age of seven, under the influence of various toxic E numbers and a book of amateur spells. If you press the white keys of my keyboard, your fingers will burn a bright acid green. This isn’t my beautiful house, my beautiful room, my beautiful toys. Man, how I’ve missed you. The last time I cried in the garden it was May and so sunny, under the lilac tree I wept for my childhood clutching a miniature bottle of whisky.
How can one have pastoral when even home—even one’s roots—feel displaced, already lost, slipping away beneath one’s feet? Pastoral was never present. Pastoral was always the idealised space, the green and gold of a romanticised past or a future vision. To reach it you had to call on the Muses.
In the Anthropocene: corrupted pastoral. A druggy, chemical haze of the paradise garden. Everything spoiled, but the spoiling starting to manifest its long-term effect. Rocks made of plastic, all that washed-up sea glass replacing the ocean’s organic silt. Sand turned to glass and back to sand again, smoother wash of eternal form. For Terry Gifford, the pastoral is ‘an ancient cultural tool’; a form of ‘textual mediation’ which transmits something of our relationship to the world. Quite grandiosely he claims: ‘Today the very survival of our species depends upon, not just this debate itself, but our ability to find the right images to represent our way of living with, and within, what we variously characterise as “nature,” “earth,” “land,” “place,” “our global environment”’. Yes, it’s quite possible the pH levels of our souls are out of whack. But it isn’t as if we’ve lost the primal ability to connect with the nonhuman. Throw me out into the Lake District and I’ll melt quicker than my teenage self listening to her first Fionn Regan song; throw me in the Hollywood canyons and I’ll be that sparkle on a dust track highway to dreamland. Oh, is that Lana, tossing back her hair? I close my eyes (hello, Arthur Russell, I’m listening) and I see little dolphins leap through those huge silver hoops.
Somebody once said dub is spiritual music. Somewhere the Nirvana-drenched dreamlands of the fin de siecle found themselves washed up, an acid-tinged pastel they called seapunk. Parma Violets, the lilac flesh. A yin yang is sucked into a whirlpool; this an accurate portrayal of my heart’s trajectory when I think of you on a summer evening and the smell of garlic and violets and rollup cigarettes…Sun crisping the deep horizon. You can’t, I mean. There are chemicals in the water, poisoned sushi. Hormones. Her blue lips don’t signify illness, but something alien. There are pyramids on all the cassette tape covers, each one symbolising the ancient. Deep time, deep horizons, deep hot lust. Nobody has a deck on which to play them. This is all very beautiful, very visual; but we lack the machinery. The correct array of objects, severed from context on the transparent grid. The slow, elusive pulse of electronic beats. Tropocalypse, barnacle-studded skin. Lilac flesh, lilac rhinestones. Follow the arrows to the tender disco, smash out your tastebuds on packets of clean white chalk.
It’s Missingno, somewhere afloat on a stillborn ocean. I kept every one of those 99 Rare Candies. I thought maybe I’d see you one day, have the chance to catch you.
Hologram memory: swooooooon.
It was all fun until someone famous put our iconography in their music video. That’s the problem with narco pastoral; it’s pretty damn close to pop. There’s already enough sugar in the diet. Stuff you can’t just flush out with salt. It’s always on the radio.
Someone had a face cream made out of mussels. The inward silk cream, lightly scented with brine. It was nice, it kept everything smooth; it made the person smell very much like a wet sea rock. But none of this is much to do with shepherds. What is the dream? What keeps it pastoral?
Temptation of animals. Lana in her garden of Tropico, writhing around in repurposed imagery of Eden. Ginsberg richly lisping sin on her lips. I saw the best minds of my generation. Well pal I saw the best minds of my generation serving tables to rich octogenarians with straight faces and genuine kindness in their eyes. They drank and they tried to describe the ontological shift that characterised their seaborne being. The misty look. Here, have some Talisker whisky. As if something was always missing, the way they would look across the room, straight through every single one of those tables. Slight shaft of light, golden beam. Sundown. Everything always setting. Someone messing with their settings. I made every element turn black.
The sheep crossed my path and each one spotted the rubies that studded the rings of my eyes. Had I been crying, purging? For what were they searching, with their dead dark stares? Some expelling of matter on a vacuous Sunday morning. The summer wind bristled the broken pores of my skin. I was all that insignificant, even the farmer laughed at me. Pale-clothed, a red bracelet slipped from my wrist. I thought of myself as pure metonymy, this endless series of objects and how I hated the need to consume them. Every act of consuming was like eating an ending except there was never a divinity to the outside, the afterward. Just that sick lump in the stomach, the recalcitrance of matter unfortunate in its obstinate return. Why am I always reminded of what I have eaten? What is this rubbish that haunts me? The nastiness, the chewing and mulching? The burning?
Narco pastoral is friendly with trash. What is the wasted hour after the morphine hits? What smoulder…Forgotten hour destined to be unremembered, to lie suspended in the space between two moments. Consciousness as stream, severed or diverted. Lonesome tributaries. How this sunset will look purer because I’m certain to forget it. Sheep cannot cross water, not properly. There’s a tendency to sink. We linger in the shallows, swap vague cuds of data. Italo Calvino deems it ‘our dark cornucopia’, these leftovers we throw out, that vital gesture of abjection that allows me to divide one day from the next. But everything has already collapsed into one, become mulch. Will you lift me? I fear I have lost my name to a certain ceremony.
Narco pastoral: craving that soothing, that tranquillising return to what brightens the mood in the manner of childhood. If I roll over, mull around in the canyons of junk. They call this awe, they call this an uplift of personality. I think about the cactuses photographed for episodes of Breaking Bad and it makes me thirsty, all that aloe vera. The luxuriant dust of the desert, rising slowly at dawn when the wind lifts and something hangs in the air, about to happen. When I played SimCity2, my neighbourhoods got hit with brutal whirlpools. I guess that was Gaia. Gorgeous or vengeful, vixen of the frenzied, hurting Earth. I guess I’m always cheating and eventually the universe finds out. Decadence of the Edenic is irrevocably alien. You see I have spent so much time lying on my bedroom floor it has started to feel like a hay bale or a barn or a hillside or something. Needles hidden. I can almost smell the breeze, hear the unimpressed mews of sheep. I’m heartsick for farmer land, for a world I do not quite understand. You begged me to watch Glue because there was a murder and a slightly attractive character. I longed to plunge in a pool of grains and be sucked so slowly away. You are, you are…
When Lana trills I sing the body electric and somewhere in time Whitman is loafing under a willow tree. There’s Ben in Lerner’s 10:04, ‘already falling out of time’, reading an ‘American edition of Whitman, its paper so thin you could use it to roll cigarettes’. Trace textuality, turn to ashes. When Isobella Rossellini is beaten to an inch of her life and still looks beautiful and that’s the tragedy. All my moods hued in blue. When the rasping sounds come from beyond the door, when all my lust for you feels useless and primitive, remnants of text message severed by missed connections. I move down the hill, steadfast as any rare sheep. The dawn is my shepherd. It’s 4am, past that even, and still I’m up writing. I’m winding my way through the hours already. This is summer and the very melding of day and night is a process narcotic. I wouldn’t be all that sad if you pressed me from bed and made every patch of me bright as your favourite rubbish. It isn’t all that. It isn’t. You could have a future. I’ll melt for you; I’ll shed for you. There’s something you just follow. The shepherd’s trajectories. He drips glitter and sings Grimes songs and knows the value of decent female production. It’s that easy. Soft qualities.
He cut his tongue on the teeth of a selkie and calls it seapunk; there’s a gap where the whistle would be. The blue aroma, the blue chord, the melancholy blue of my body. When someone smashes a car in Vice City a frown forms on the underbelly of the sun. This is an old polaroid, the light leak very alien indeed. This is my collage of all that has been and will be. Blue skies, green grass, white sheep. I suppose it’s a good enough time now as any to reveal that I’m rainbow. I look like something a kid would vomit at a sleepover; this disgusting array of E numbers. Upshot: no stranger to the internet. The starry pixellation which on second thought could perhaps be freckles. How I loved him more for that, the warm skin feels soft on the back of the neck (net). Narco pastoral is soft porn, Hegelian dialectics, a fistful of dreams, a bump of mandy. You just want that ecodelic happiness, pure joy in the spin of your dusty shoes. If you drop all the drugs, consider me clean in the light I will love you. I’ve never been certain of anything. I just follow.
:: : the toxic lush pastoral
:: : the physiognomic, urban transcendental
:: : the stop-dust of carbon
:: : the fluid quotidian
:: : the endless chain of what once was (N)ature
/ World of Awe, A Stopped Ontography. / 🗑
It is important, according to Timothy Morton (2007), to harness the powers of kitsch.
I am with you, I am plastic-wrapped
and still just breathing…
(A short story I wrote back in March, knee-deep in Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, handfuls of Romanticismand longing for the sea. It’s about an oil spill, a young boy’s strange obsessions and his very indulgent Daedalian poetry)
He’s become obsessed with making lists of optical properties. Qualities of light quantified on a complex scale he devised at midnight, drunk on a month of insomnia.
His father is very concerned. He comes home and pours amber from the bottle, watching his son pore over homework. Sometimes a storm shatters the sky through the window and they are both oblivious; the father is a terrible farmer. He keeps just a small herd of cows. A local girl comes to do the milking because he is incapable sometimes, and he won lots of money on the races which pays for her wages. He’s grown sick of the jelly-pink udders.
The boy draws lines, draws a series of overlapping ellipses. This is his expression of despair in the face of algebraic equations. He has grown quite fond of receiving those sweet red Fs.
The community is idyllic as any island could be. The school is offshore, on the main island. Every morning, he gets the ferry with the rest of them. They move as one great shoal of fish. Sometimes he watches it happen from afar, the torrent of school uniforms dissolving through the mouth of the big white ship. On such mornings he turns away and walks further inland, hoping to find comfort in the hills.
He never does. It is only the sea he loves.
Once, the milking girl tried to make a move on him. She used to wear her hair in braids stitched together across her skull, but that day she came in with it long and loose and wavy.
“Will ye not get it in the muck?” the father asked, secretly admiring her golden tresses. She smiled at him. She waited for the boy to come down from his room, eking out time with every pull of the milk. He saw her bent over like that, the hair dripping over her shoulders. He was holding a tattered textbook.
“I love that you read,” she murmured, to no one. The sound was drowned by the cow’s impatient grunt.
“Easy girl,” she said, thwacking its flanks. The boy stood there watching and she mistook that for desire. She turned to look him in the eye, letting the left strap of her top slip down her arm. That one white breast would haunt him forever, like an immature moon. He averted his gaze.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. He sat in the straw, slumped to the floor, and wept. She had never seen someone so pathetic.
He would stand in the shallows of the sea and feel this ache that was deeper than any pain he had ever experienced. It wasn’t pain exactly, but it was a thing that gnawed at his chest, so much sometimes he could hardly breathe. The grey green waters would shlock around his ankles. In the distance they darkened to purple, to wine. His soul was scorched by sunsets. He picked up shells and held them to his ear, listening for the ocean’s distant, groaning radio.
The old woman in the village store told him she sensed his misaligned chakras. She had a bracelet for that, studded with seven power gems.
“You should wear it day and night,” she warned him.
“I have no money.” He studied the trinket with interest. The citrine and carnelian were pretty, but it was the clear quartz and amethyst he liked best. The tiny crackles inside reminded him of waves, preserved in time.
He hung it back up on the stand, alongside the crystal pendants and the celtic knots they sold to tourists.
“I’ll have a postcard instead.”
“A postcard? Who on earth do you have to write to?”
He sat on one of the picnic benches by the shore. The wind kept threatening to blow everything away so he had to pin the card down as he wrote. It was a picture of some white boats against a flaming sundown. Utterly cliché.
Dear mother, he began. What else was there to say?
Sometimes he would walk for an hour right round to the other side of the island. There was a cleft in the rocks you could find for safety at high tide; it was sufficiently above ground to protect one from the flailing salty waters. He would nestle in that cleft and compose lines:
The vitreous lustre of the sea turning starboard in tidal cycles, an errant moon throwing zephyrs across the still bright sound.
Oh mariner, how you have travelled so deep in the blood of the world! I miss the sense of your stories, sharp as whisky
in bars where the girls did sing: how lovely is the newborn day! There are precious few elements as vast as you, I should
dream only of your strange motifs, a darkening glass against turquoise air. In the morning I plot
my passage to the mainland, sullied with the effluvia of island living, drunk on the salt and the still bright rain.
He would never show his words to a soul. He rolled the thick pages, torn from his father’s ledger, and stuffed them in the empty tubes that once held his teenage posters. The woman in the café served him strong black coffee, and never once asked him why he wasn’t at school. He left her a £1 tip, excess change gleaned from not eating lunch.
Sometimes he would stand on the edge of some cliff and let the wind buffet his body so hard it was perfectly possible that he’d be torn from his mount and hurled to the sea below, stirred up and strangled in its milky swirls.
A week after the milk girl quit, there was a terrible oil spill. Nobody was quite sure who was to blame. People skipped school and work to go down the shore and watch the slow undulations of the oil on the water. It reminded the boy of something oozing in his dreams, a black thick sweat that covered everything. He wrapped his father’s jacket tight around his shoulders. Flecks spattered the silt and shingle the way ink sprayed from a burst pen. They were waiting for experts to arrive.
Some of the islanders wore oilskins or workmen’s gear and went down the next morning to help clean up. The boy had spent half the night on the safety of his favourite rock, watching the oil thicken and coagulate in the shallows. A few birds washed up, unidentifiable. They looked like lumps of hematite, shining in the new full moon. Sometimes the sight of that black shining oil was so much that the boy could hardly breathe.
It was a job that went on for weeks. The oil just kept coming and coming. People from the news arrived with fancy cameras and started interviewing the locals. They said it was one of the worst offshore spillages in a generation. Old folks tutted and blamed the greed of the mainland.
“They might as well have fountains in shopping centres, spraying this stuff around, for all they abuse it.”
The boy kept a diary of the oil. He tried to write about it purely aesthetically. He wanted a thousand words for black, thick, inky, viscous.
The words brought temporary distraction but deep down they sickened him. He longed to put his bare feet in the sea again. His father scorned him for not helping with the clean-up. He had to do double-shifts with the cows, now that the milk girl had quit.
“You lost your chance there my son.”
The boy started stealing his father whisky. He knew where the weak point was in the distillery warehouse. His father left him alone after that, asked no questions.
The boy noticed that the light on the island had changed with the coming of the oil. Before, it was all stained glass, watercolour: bright and airy. Greens and blues refracted through each other, sparkling. Now the oil cast strange shadows; there were colours on the beach that the boy could not name. He tried to make sense of them with numerical scales to measure the gradients and shades. He kept his notes in a new journal, whose edges were already curled with dried rain, spattered with sea oil.
The sea reveals its fleshly skin of jade, the green that makes flickers of the water shiver among those darkling fish, to fade inexorably among its daughters,
the girls of the dawn with their wet sea fur. Five generations have known such deep love as to carve loud bones from the ocean’s whir, still spinning the buoys at their broken hulls.
We wait on the rocks for the siren’s call, laying our bodies to waste on the sound while the immature moon makes fools of all who believe in the beautiful, who drowned
Easy as sailors on a summer’s day, Bloated with salt, time’s lustful decay.
Sometimes his language was so cloying he literally fell violently ill. It was as if he were at sea on a ship, rocked back and forth by a bullying tide. His father found him curled over the toilet.
“Have you been at the whisky my boy?”
“No father. I’m sick at heart.”
“You’re in love?”
“No. It’s the oil.”
He could not eat. He could not sleep. Night melted into day, the hours sat atop one another with the stagnant sense of that oil on the water.
Once, walking along the shore at night, he fancied he saw the milk girl. She walked naked across the sand, her body waxen white, as if carved from the moon. He felt so dreadfully solid in her company. The gooseflesh prickled his neck. She was singing an old song they had learned at school.
From the old things to the new Keep me traveling along with you
He’d once hated the song, finding it a trite and gooey hymn, but the way she sang it made his heart sting. He realised then that he was no longer a child, that he’d no longer have the innocent luxury of hating something the way he used to hate that song. He thought of the days when he played in the sea until the sun sank behind it, spilling its fiery peach light across the water. How he used to come home with jellyfish stings, salt in his pores, sunburn from the hottest June afternoons.
There was the flaking, turquoise paint on the hulls of abandoned ships. The colour of rust, the old iron chains that oxidised fast in the saline air. The abandoned, unravelled feel of the old yard where the dead ships waited to be repaired. The salt sped everything up, made objects fade eons before they should.
The sea howled. Storms came in quicker than they usually did at this time of year. There was a brief shortage of food as the boats struggled to get offshore, beyond the oil. People were irritable and the cows yielded badly. The boy found a beautiful starfish washed up in a cove. It was jet black, encrusted with oil. It looked like some kind of exotic ornament, worn by a rich lady in a Bond film. He kept it on his windowsill, admired it as the minutes ticked long and slow on the clock.
When the seals started washing up, choked and black and dead as bin-bags, things got serious. Their mouths were bloodied and dry and choked, splayed open as if caught in a final howl. Did seals howl? Could they?
Specialists from the mainland arrived in helicopters to help with the cleanup. There was talk of the island receiving huge subsidies and pay-offs from the petrol company responsible for the spill. Teenagers snapped pictures on their phones and posted them online, tagging them with things like: #shocking #awful #evil #gross #capitalism #darkaesthetic.
The boy realised his peers were wiser than he thought. But they did not know the real damage, the agony he felt sloshing in his chest every time he lay down. There was the sea. It was always there, but once it had been a brilliant cerulean, mottled with orange and heather, grey and jade. Everything smelled of dull and stinking petrol. He wrote in his journal:
It is our world’s first beautiful disturbance. All disasters must entice the eye.
He thought of 9/11, watching the replays on the television screen while his father drank steadily on the sofa beside him.
“There’s evil out there, my boy.”
“But what about the evil in here?” The boy pointed to his own chest. His father laughed.
“I don’t think you’re going to take down buildings any time soon.” Clumsily, he helped his son with his tie. “Now get yourself to school.”
That isn’t what I meant; it isn’t what I meant at all.
Sometimes on the rocky plateaus the remnants of oil ghosted the overflow of water, left swirling patterns of rainbows. He checked the internet and saw that people at school were posting lots of photos again. A girl in his class said she was doing her art project on the oil spill. He wanted to tell her to stop, to tell her she knew nothing about the changing colours and the way time was caught in the turgid undulations.
“Father, when will you tell me about mother?”
“What is there to tell? She left when you were still a babe.”
“There’s things you won’t understand til you’re older. Now go and play.”
He had not played for five years. He was old now, he was wiser than anyone thought.
He lugged empty bottles across the road to the dumpsters. He now knew the clinking was conspicuous; he could feel the eyes on his back as he smashed each one through the hole.
Once, he dreamt of the milk girl, lying on one of the hillside fields inland, her hair plaited with cowslips. She was humming a tune because it was his birthday. She drank from a bottle of cherryade, the miniature Barr ones you got from the island store. He saw how her tongue was staining red. He woke up feeling very ashamed.
The raven-dark sea made a fool of me,
those tides of black crashing waves in the night against the harbour wall. I miss the green abstracted aqua light, playing so bright
amid those blues, those waters clear as glass who sheltered the glossy ribbons of fish to swim in the shimmers, burnished with brass by an old sun that loves life like a wish.
And now, if I were but a lonesome child making his way to the soar of the sound would my young mind find soon such passions wild inside lagoons, whirlpools, tide patterns bound?
Son to the slippy, cerulean sea, I rise forward in time to what will be.
When he saw the oil-stained peat of the rocks, the blackened beach, he kept thinking of those towers collapsing. It was like someone had the bright idea of symbolising how everything was falling apart with one fell swoop of a global, terroristic stunt. He asked his teacher if the sea could go on fire, now that it was coated with oil.
“Some folks say that’s the best way to deal with it,” she told him.
“So why haven’t they?”
“I’m sure they have their reasons.” But the boy was sick of not having answers. There were so many creatures out there, wailing with pain beneath the surface, and no one was listening. The ships went out but all they seemed to do was swirl the oil round and round, gathering it thicker. Nothing disappeared. Nothing.
One day, he came home from school to find his father rifling through his papers. While his files were normally organised, shut tight in a drawer, now they were scattered all over his bedroom floor. His father had let a glass of wine spill on the carpet and now a horrid red stain accompanied the places where cigarettes had been stubbed, where coffee had seeped into a forest of fibres.
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
“This stuff, son, what does it all mean?” his father looked at him with tears in his eyes, a sight which struck fear in the boy’s heart. His father only wept on Sabbath days, and even then, only in the early morning when he thought the boy was still asleep. But of course the boy heard him through the walls.
“It means nothing,” the boy said, furious, “absolutely nothing.” He swept up all the papers and slammed the door in his father’s face. That night he would burn the lot, then take a bath in the masses of ashes.
Dear mother, he wrote. He was in the island café and his tea had gone cold. It was three o’clock—the dead time—and the waitress hummed a lonesome song as she swept clean all the tables. He was writing on the back of another postcard. It showed the standing stones, the ones in the centre of the island. He’d only been there a few times.
I don’t know where you are or what happened to you. How many times is it now that I’ve written to you? I wonder if somehow your spirit catches these words from the ether, even as your body is absent from their possibility. I hate myself, I hate my words.
He scribbled out the last line.
I want to get back to you. Father is worse. He drinks like a fish, a seasick sailor. I think he misses the sea more than I do. I think maybe he hates being a farmer, hates the land. Its demands. The sea demands nothing. It doesn’t need fed. But now we’ve fucked up so bad. We’ve poisoned the sea. And maybe you’re out there somewhere watching all of this on TV. The birds are so sticky with oil they lie down without flight and never get up. Some drown. Imagine that, drowning in the black black oil? The feel of it choking in your throat, sickly as molasses. I can’t help feeling it’s somehow my fault. My blood feels poisoned as the sea. Everything is slow and sluggish and heavy. I hardly want to get out of bed. I can hardly breathe.
His handwriting grew increasingly minuscule, so that a passing glance would reveal more a black block of tiny, pressing shapes than actual words. There was something satisfying about seeing all that ink crushed together; it was a bit like the oil itself, taking over the whiteness of the page.
The boy left the café just as it was closing, as the dusk was settling into the sky over the sea. He took the winding path down to the beach, stones crunching beneath his feet. He took a detour to pass by the recycling bins at the end of the street. The café stood alone, its lonesome sign buffeted in high winds and often hurled across the beach, but it wasn’t far from houses. Each one painted a different shade of pastel, to hide the despair of the residents within. The bottle bank, as always, was overflowing. The boy chose a slender, clear bottle, labelled for gin. He picked up a lid from among the street rubble and luckily it fit. Down by the shoreline, he rolled his postcard tight into a tube and posted it through the bottle’s neck. Screwed the cap. Hurled it far out into the waves, where it bobbed for a moment, before the gathering night tides stole it from sight, swirling into darkness, distance.
Her milk-sweet cheeks…
He scratched that one.
The open lungs of the still-breathing sea…
Trackings of light from west to east: Time co-ordinates; forgotten detritus Blended mermaid’s purses, lemoning pale and lovely skeins of flesh in the gloaming, a moon’s first milk making cream of an evening, the curdled settlements of a westerly tide.
My mother, my mother. Your presence vectoring the harsher veins of the waves in clearer photons which press their coastal scars on the canvased skin of a virtual reality, electromagnetic stirring of the heart.
There is a scattering, a donut-shaped diagram shedding the chintz of its skull off in dullish flakes, blueish as fish food.
(…What are you writing son?
It does pains to lie; come on, show me.
You’re always so far away when you write.
Yes, I suppose…)
I ask father, could the sea go on fire? Like, if you struck a match to the black black oil? He said the water was alcoholic, sloshing with secret poisons, a formula for ending its own incantatory eloquence that spreads in the waves such messages as to embrocate the flow of blood diseased in the world’s great spleen.
He said nothing of the sort; he was cold and mean. The tumorous lumps puffed at the pores of his torso, unfurling like chanterelles, yellowing the gorse and scrub of a forest. I knew then that his pain was utterly edible.
A molten pot of onyx, a knot shaped like a pretzel, the twisted wire that snarls in the dark of his heart. Father, he was a sailor once, a man of the deep black waves.
He remembered the milk girl used to sing to the cows. She cooed at them, sickly sweet, then struck up some old folk melody he recognised from the songs they sang in primary school. Songs about the changing seasons, the inevitable cycles of nature. She knew how to keep the animals still, to tame them to her softening will.
Once, he made eye contact with a seal. He was sitting on a rock on the island’s easterly side, hoping for shelter from the autumn wind. The black shape had rose, dark and smooth, from the choppy grey waves. Its eyes had flashed back at him, uncannily human, green as his own. Green as the sea in the sweetest shallows, made greener still by heaps of seaweed. His fingers brushed the briny rubber, popping the sacs of air. Is it time yet?
In the café again, he was listening to the old waitress as she stood by his table, hands beating powdery flour on her apron. Her accent had thickened over the years, congealing into the island’s broad dialect like salt crystals fattening in the cracks of a cliff.
“They say half the men on this island lost their hearts to the beasts of the sea. I could tell you many stories.”
“Torn asunder, you could say.”
“By whom? A childhood sweetheart?”
(and if the candied dawn brings tastes luxurious…)
“Yer mother, stupid.”
“He still loves her.”
“She found her skin elsewhere. A better fit.”
“Yes.” She rolled up her sleeve. He saw how her arms were covered with an elaborate craquelure of scars and burns and etched-in scratches, as if the flesh were readying itself for sloughing off, the mottled pattern of a snakeskin.
Of all the animals in the marble menagerie I choose you, silvery moon wisps of limestone streaking the fault-lines of my sparkling heart, its sacred burial beneath the midnight billows. Funereal, sweetening the crumbling aura, you see underwater, sharp as a seal’s dilated vision.
The love notes meant nothing, were for no one. Sometimes, he forgot the original purpose of everything. He kept quantitive records of the weather, the changing seasonal light, the pathways of the lighthouse beam as it cut across the bay, endlessly searching. He missed the special quality of innocence that the place had lost after the oil spill. Even with the cleanup, traces of the disaster remained. The sea birds had quit the agonised sea and even the crabs were shrivelled carcasses, washed up on litter-streaked beaches. The council had all but given up, now that corporate control was hardening its narratives of the wreckage.
What if the gin bottle remained, bobbing in one place, the current thickening around it, enriched by the stasis of oil?
the shadowy slosh of gelatinous babble / like molasses i stretch long and sweet in your mouth / i imagine the darkness inside you, a sable annihilating the spill of me / your gluey skin sticks to me with the tarry promise of future absence / a terrible, sickening lubricant
Sometimes, he wrote what he considered to be filthy, erotic poetry, forgetting to dot his i’s.
Everything he wrote brought him closer to the water. He felt his words surrounding him like cloying blots of oil, swimming in his sleep and spreading out through daily reality. His grades plummeted and his soul found solace only at twilight, bearing cold feet to the dusky waters.
He knew the milk girl came out sometimes to watch him. He saw her emanations from across the bay.
The cows were milking very badly. They grunted with inhuman fury whenever the boy’s father tried to draw from those shrunken teats. The boy ate very little and the father even less, chomping his way through stub after stub of cheap cigarettes.
“My gums are sore,” the boy complained.
“Lack of nutrition,” his father replied. He asked for a slice of lemon in his tea at the café. The waitress said fruit was scarce; she’d have to knock on 50p to his bill.
A few nights later, he woke up to a pillow covered in crusted blood. His mouth was the same, darkened with black clots. A gap in his gums. The lost tooth reappeared beneath the sheets, a little white stump of ivory, knotted at its roots with a tangle of red, seaweed sinew.
“Goodness son,” the father said when he saw what had happened. “That’s one of your molars.”
Terrified he would lose the rest of his teeth, the boy ate only liquids, or else the slippery fish they served sometimes as specials at the café, depending on what the men could bring back from the boats, delicate in silver lamé. Sometimes the fish tasted of petrol, but nobody voiced this opinion.
The boy placed his tooth in an old spice jar and hurled it out to sea, an offering. Sometimes he felt the wind whistle through the gap it had left in his mouth.
The rock pools were finally back to a greener colour. Good healthy emerald sea lettuce, the tawny rust of cystaphora, tangles of Neptune’s necklace. Salt crusts formed round the edges. The boy dipped his fingers in to feel the warming water. Was spring coming?
There was the milk girl, ghostly in a tangle of cowslips.
“How are you, it’s been so long?”
I love the seals and the way their skin is a rippling film of oil, the wrinkles like sexy black outfits on tv stretching and spreading for the flesh of human hungriness.
“These diagrams,” he told her, “chart the changing luminescence of the dying ocean. Tide patterns spread the moon to buttery swirls in different directions. See where this ellipsis meets the horizon’s curve?” But she had no interest in his geometries, his Venn, his equations. She wanted to talk about the people at school, the films you could see on the mainland cinema, the new dress she had made from an old white silk.
“Do you believe in mermaids?” she asked.
“Women are not so callous.”
“If you come to the field I can show you my skin.”
“The strawberries will be out soon, a bed-sheet studded with dewdrops of blood.”
“My skin is white. I am white as the moon.”
“I believe sometimes people breathe underwater.”
“You’re so mysterious. You speak like somebody much older. I had an uncle once…”
“I’m not sure I love you.”
He might have gone with her, might have watched as she shed the magnificent white dress, cast it into a crumple like the cape of an angel. He followed the trajectories of her limbs, watching the shadows move in rhythmic repetition against the pale grass, felt vaguely the rubbing of skin like the way it feels to walk barefoot through fresh, juicy mounds of seaweed.
“Do you miss her?”
“Well enough. I know she’s out there somewhere.”
“Is that really enough?”
“Sometimes it’s all there is.”
The island was gifted a grant as compensation for the oil spill. The village was cleaned up and the shopfronts repainted. The rusting boats in the old dock were going to be towed away to make room for new ones.
The boy and the milk girl started playing a game. They would jump off the harbour wall, hand in hand, utterly naked at the darkest point in the night. In the cold black water they would scrabble down as far as they could, holding their breath, waiting for the exhilaration to rush through their blood. They tried to prolong the time before resurfacing, scrabbling for weeds and stones to tug them downwards. Soon, however, the tide buoyed them upwards and they were gasping for air in the midst of pure darkness. A single light from someone’s cottage spilled gold on the water’s surface. The girl’s hair was blonde and the light was gold; everything else was blackness.
Our bodies slippery as bladderwrack beating the tide in the stillborn black, a bolt of cold struck deep in the veins where poisons gather their listless death.
Everything he wrote was terrible now. Soured by the thing that had come between him and the milk girl. He slept all day, wrote by twilight, cast his notes to the wind on his least favourite side of the island. The place with the graves, the place where the air was warmly rich with spirits. It unsettled him.
“You’re missing a tooth,” she said once, poking her fingers round his mouth, where the gums were soft and rubbery.
“Yes.” He clamped down hard on her fingers and she yelped, playfully, like a pup. They went back up to the farm and helped out with the milking, so that it was done in triple time and the three of them could have a meal together, big cups of cider and a shared loaf of bread. She sung into the twilight and the men listened in silence.
The boy took down all his diagrams because the milk girl told him they were freaking her out. He wanted her to sleep in his bed but every night she insisted on going down to the harbour. What with the daytime milking and the nighttime swimming, the boy was growing very exhausted.
“What are we trying to prove?” he asked, folding her shining body to his in the moonlight.
“I want to know, I mean, I need to know.”
“Can we be creatures of the sea?” He thought then of the seal who had stared at him long and hard, like it had known him forever. He shivered.
“Maybe it’s better not to. Then we can just pretend.”
“You miss her, don’t you?”
There are different types of orphans. Some are split irrevocably from their origins, by death or neglect. Others are tied to this primal region of their life by a gossamer thread of dreams. The milk girl seemed to have hatched from the sky, on a pure and cloudless night.
One time, they were night-diving down by the harbour and she disappeared. One minute, they were together, tangled in the gruesome depths of the harbour; the next, he could not feel her body at all. All was rock and weed and jellyfish. The tide was high, it had come sloshing up the walls and with it all manner of ocean debris. As the elders always said, the sea hurls back what gets hurled into it.
After swimming around in the churning currents, trying to make out a slender white shape, the boy gave up. He climbed the rusted ladder and promptly vomited onto the concrete, mouthfuls of seawater and silt and evening coffee. Shaking a little, he stood on the edge of the wall, looking for the gold-blonde head of his little seal. Maybe she just swam away from him, following some milky highway of moonlight back to her beautiful origins. But he could not help but think of how she had just vanished, torn away by some invisible current, her body ensnared by terrible kelp.
She never returned, and he realised that nobody noticed that she was gone. When he asked his father about the milk girl’s parents, he said something vaguely ominous and strange about how she was an outsider, “an immigrant to the island’s soil, born from luminous loins.”
Enough of the hoary midnight mist that tricks me into feeling. I am old as the sand, a grain of the past, and I am willing to die for that.
He found the dead starfish in his room, still crusted black with oil, as if it were a strange piece of jet or coral. He took it down to the beach one evening, when his bones were aching from all the walking he had done lately, scouring the cliffs for signs of the girl. The starfish looked so vulnerable, but in its black outfit seemed completely strange, a being from another world, resplendent in PVC. He returned it to the dark waters, slipping it under the shallow waves, waiting for it to be pulled asunder. He realised then what a fool he had been, to think he could take something from the deep of the sea, even to hold it and love it. The oil had gone and so had the sea’s suspension, now released into a churning, awful hunger, the cycling time and crazy waves that kept the boy awake—night after night, day after day.
For the third day in a row, Brian looked down while brushing his teeth and saw a tiny green shoot sprouting out of the drain. Only last night, at 2am no less, he had pulled the little fucker out and thrown it down the toilet.
“Miriam!” he shouted to his wife, who no doubt was still curled in bed. “The tree’s back!”
“Mhmh?” Cursing at her lack of interest, he spat out toothpaste and watched how the white foam flecked the two bright leaves of the shoot. Remnants of raisins and granola showered like rubble around it. He turned on both taps and washed it away, but the shoot remained.
On his commute to work, he noticed something was on fire at the side of the motorway. The flames were big, apocalyptic, and when he opened the passenger window the black stench of burning rubber filled his car. There wasn’t a scrapyard round here; there were no reasons to be burning rubber. This was the fucking countryside, not some rustbelt wasteland.
At the office, he turned in the financial reports that were due at 10am. He sat through a meeting which featured the usual pantomime antics of his boss, the kind of man whose entire career is based on imitating the flamboyance of a Disney character while necking enough coffee and bourbon to seem manically on form at every performance.
“What we are building up to,” he announced, “is the ultimate synergy.” His arms flailed back in grand gesture, nearly knocking over the pie chart drawing his assistant had etched on the flip chart. “Capital merging with capital, a clean abstraction, the upward surge of profit. Think of this as MarioKart. How many of you have played MarioKart?” His eyes narrowed as he surveyed his colleagues round the table.
There was much quivering, as only a handful of people raised their hands.
“Well, the chosen few will know what I mean by the Rainbow Road,” he continued. “We’re on that motherfucking Rainbow Road. One veer off and we plunge into space, the black void, and that’s that. So I can’t afford a single mishap, I don’t care what happens. We need to synthesise, synergise, synchronise. You hear me?”
Every week, the boss delivered a near-identical speech; the only thing that changed was the arbitrary cultural reference he dragged up, presumably from the stacks of CDs and video-games in his son’s bedroom.
At this point, the assistant stood up hastily. She was young for the job, a high achiever, reaching for those virtual stars in a pair of vicious heels.
“What we mean,” she said, trying to clarify, “is it’s important not to underestimate green shoots. Those little signs of growth. Shares in petroleum, in plastic, are rising nicely. Not to mention South American superfood angiosperms, part of a wider move towards elite organic harvests. While the economy flounders around us, clinging to the small things is what will help us reach that upward surge.”
“Thank you, Heidi.” The boss shot her an appreciative leer. “Now what the fuck is an angiosperm?”
On his lunch-break, Brian ate a sad desk sandwich with a fellow number-cruncher. The two of them were the runts of the litter, the ones that never got invited to the cloying, marathon lunches the boss often dragged the office out on. This meant they were never in line for promotion, but bore the advantage of letting them avoid the poisonous oysters and chardonnay which often left their colleagues retching all afternoon.
“You know Liam,” Brian mused, “I found a green shoot in my sink the other day. It’s still there, even though I thought I pulled it out.”
“What?” Liam was dim-witted and this was maybe why he never got called out to lunch.
“Like, an actual green shoot. I think it’s getting taller.”
“Maybe God’s trying to tell you something,” Liam said ominously.
Back home that evening, Brian found that the shoot had gotten much taller indeed. So tall that various branches curled out thirstily, wrapping themselves round the taps. Brian shrugged and didn’t bother brushing his teeth that night. He pressed himself into Miriam’s back but realised she was already asleep. It was what, nine o’clock?
He got up very early and left the flat straight away to get to work. The accounts were flying off his desk that morning.
“Good work Ben,” his boss said, floating past the desk, collecting his documents.
“I’m on the upward surge,” Brian nodded.
On his way out the door that night he gave Heidi a contrived and lustful glance. She looked at him with eyebrows raised, but this could mean anything. He decided to drive out to the spot where yesterday he’d seen the flames. It was a pit in the ground, a charred patch of grass gone black. He fancied there was some resemblance to a pie chart, the way the different shades of burnt matter lay, wedge-like, in the circle. He did some rearranging, moving shrivelled plastic and ash and wood chips around until they met satisfactory dimensions.
When he came home with soot all over his hands and face, Miriam said he looked beautiful. She was a Leo and had a thing for fire. He looked into her eyes for the first time in weeks. Her whole body seemed to pause, to start melting right in front of him. The light from the kitchen window made her skin so pale, except for a flash of orange across her face. He was about to kiss her, to fall into the molten mass of her body, when she reached straight for his belt buckle. This was a first.
Afterwards, he went into the bathroom to wash his face. The tree had taken over the entire bathroom. In just a few hours, the little green stems had become proper woven wooden branches. He had to climb over and around them just to take a piss. What came out of him was yellow, dark. The flames were inside him now, and the leaves of the tree shimmered around his body, bathing him in luxurious gold.
“Honey,” he heard Miriam’s voice at the door, glistening with the shrapnel of Heidi’s lisp. He realised he was still clutching his limp penis. “D’you think the world’s ending?”
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).
Hipster Poseur or Situationist Provocateur? – The Metamodernism of Father John Misty
The recent crowning of Bob Dylan as winner of the Nobel prize for literature exemplifies our cultural obsession with authenticity. Sure, there are many other reasons for awarding Dylan the prize: the sheer volume of material he’s produced over several decades; his stature as an icon for the sensitive singer-songwriter; the influence he’s had on a whole variety of other musicians, writers, poets (hell, Joyce Carol Oates even dedicated a short story to him, and that was back in 1966). What’s striking about Dylan though is that he captures a certain lonesome troubadour aesthetic, taking the oral folk tradition of storytelling and the Beat generation aesthetics of immediacy, emotional expression and sensory impressions, and applying them to the sphere of popular music. In an age of auto-tuning, the ironic Cyborgism of Lady Gaga, the sheen of Kardashian perfectionism and the rise of the electronic sample, Dylan is held up as a figure of raw humanism, a celebration of flaws, a messiah for authenticity: its historical legacy, the possibility of its imminent return – the road myth stretching out into a kind of flame-red 1960s sunset, drenched in the nostalgia of a generation sick of techno and Twitter. I’m not so interested in whether Dylan should or shouldn’t have won the award; I’m more interested in what it says about our culture – namely, the nostalgia for the Real, the Authentic.
In an age of reality tv, true crime novels, of voguish memoirs and the confessional impulse of social media, it’s no wonder we keep craving the apparent honesty and pastoral romance conjured by a wild-haired young man standing lonesome in the canyons and warbling some wistful ballad documenting a troubled exploration of the soul, the wasted conditions of modern life. Yet while Dylan triumphs in the popular imagination, what are contemporary artists doing to subvert the system? In an age of hyperreality, hyper-pornography, liquid modernity, the Internet of Things, postpostmodernity – whatever you wanna call it – what can the pop singer do to achieve genuine controversy? Do you have to pull a Miley Cyrus and gyrate against a giant foam finger whilst performing a duet with a man dressed like an oversized humbug? Is irony and ludic poststructuralist riddling the only solution to capitalist existence, or have we gone beyond into something more? Where does the future lie for subversive performance art and indeed music?
Metamodernism, a term crystallised in Luke Turner’s 2011 manifesto, is a term which attempts to solve the problem of what comes next, what follows the snazzy, wisecrack playfulness of postmodernism. Instead of suggesting a temporal leap from postmodernism into something else, metamodernism argues for the notion of an oscillation between modernism and postmodernism, embodying at once the ‘sincerity, hope, romanticism, affect’ of modernism’ with the lessons of postmodernism, its ontological questionings, its artistic techniques of ‘deconstruction, irony, pastiche, relativism, nihilism, and the rejection of grand narratives’ (Turner 2015). This wavering between irony and sincerity, I argue, aptly characterises the music and performance of Father John Misty, aka Josh Tillman (former Fleet Foxes drummer). Misty is significant because of his trajectory from earnest, melancholic folk singer in the mould of Nick Drake/drummer in a band that made earnest, pastoral chamber pop, to a kind of bombastic, Hollywood shaman persona who mixes Neil Young with magic mushrooms and an ever-present iPhone. Much has been said on the likes of James Franco and Shia LaBeouf as metamodern performance artists. Franco’s film The Interview (2014) refuses to provide viewers with a fiction filter and leaves us despairingly perplexed as to its real-life veracity. As Seth Abramson puts it, ‘[d]oes The Interview “sincerely” intend to romanticise the murder of a real-world political leader, or is it “ironically” depicting an imaginary scenario in which that murder occurs? The viewer, of whatever nationality or political affiliation, is left to fend for themselves’. LaBeouf’s whole existence seems to consist predominantly in deliberately stirring controversy through performance art, including turning up to the premier of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac wearing a paper bag over his head, proclaiming the words ‘I am not famous anymore’. Is it a cheap ironic trick, or a genuine stab at the fickleness of celebrity culture? The reticence and lack of context provided for such art leaves the answers – and often the questions – up to the viewer. It’s not quite Brechtian estrangement, but it certainly has enough of that surrealist, absurdist quality to leave us reflecting critically on our established aesthetic definitions of what constitutes good taste, meaning, or indeed art altogether. While Franco and LaBeouf have been suitably lavished over in metamodern critique, I think it’s time Father John Misty had a spin under the hot lights.
For starters, naming. As soon as an artist adopts a moniker, they fall victim to an endless cycle of questioning which regurgitates the tired litany of phrases: ‘true self’, ‘authentic’, ‘real’. Band names which suggest authentic expression: the Manic Street Preachers (literally, they are people of the street, preaching a raw, unadulterated, ‘manic’ message). Richey Edwards famously took a razor blade and carved ‘4 REAL’ on his arm after NME interviewer Steve Lamacq playfully questioned the authenticity of the Manic Street Preachers’ aggressively critical punk aesthetic. The notion of the REAL, then, is so pressing that it must be etched into one’s skin to prove one’s credentials. While David Bowie was widely celebrated for his queering of identity and invention of a whole host of alter-egos, Lana Del Rey is constantly lambasted in the media for being fake, inauthentic, a sham. Videos of songs from her Lizzy Grant days are dug up and splayed out online like some kind of police file. Look: this is the REAL Lana Del Rey! Even her lips are fake now! Perhaps the difference in response is because with Bowie, the fantasy quality was obvious – Ziggy Stardust was a character leapt out of some wonderful, coke-fuelled 1970s disco super-dream – whereas with Lana and Father John Misty, the line between ‘character’ and ‘true person’ is blurred. Tillman has denied (quite vehemently) that Father John Misty is simply a fictional creation, or merely an extension of personality; he sees it as a conveniently funny name which does the trick of ornamenting the desired psychedelic vibes of his music, it’s simply ‘a sequence of phonetic sounds that looks good on a t-shirt’.
For Misty, ‘most people’s idea of real authenticity is pork pies and vests and banjoes and whatever else, but real authenticity is just empathy, because everyone uses their own experiences as being the gold standard for authenticity’. This points to the cultural relativism of authenticity. In our current era, it is manifested in the torn-shirt, heart-felt indie band epitomised perhaps most vividly by the Libertines, with the Pete’n’Carl rock’n’roll shambles of a double act coupled with poetic lyricism and the ‘authentic’ (but indelibly nostalgic) imagery of Cool Britannia. Once, it was curly-haired Dylan, or sickly, sensitive, visionary Romantic poet, John Keats. That Misty plays with so many cultural signifiers indicates his awareness of this relativism and indeed deliberately disrupts our understanding of authenticity itself. It’s embodied in his very music, which combines lyrics about redemptive love, self-loathing and cynical society with honey-sweet chamber pop. What does it mean to have this slightly ridiculous, towering, internet-trolling hipster figure sing genuinely sensitive ballads about romance and the tragically fucked-up consequences of a drop-out lifestyle, woven alongside songs about digging up graves and having sex in the Hollywood cemetery, ‘with Adderall and weed in my veins’? One thing’s for certain: authenticity is not something that’s fixed, and we might think about the cultural politics of who gets to decide what’s considered authentic…
With Lana Del Rey, the Ghetto Lolita persona isn’t just a persona, but in a similar vein to Tillman’s FJM, constitutes a whole arrangement of cultural codes mixed specifically with the enticement of death and sex appeal. Del Rey’s fashion alters in her videos, from 1960s baby doll to biker bad girl, trailer trash harlot, president’s wife and the melancholic hip hop angel on ‘High by the Beach’. Questioning her authenticity seems to miss the point, drawing us into a recursive and probably reductive debate about identity politics. What matters is how she adopts these different styles and weaves them through her performance; how using elements of trap, hip hop and soul within her lush landscapes of electric guitars and slowly melodic, ethereal vocals, prompts the listener’s awareness of a bewildering but certainly exhilarating mesh of symbolic values which cut across race, class, sexuality and gender, drawing us back to that central ideological problematic: the American Dream. As Karen van den Berg (2013) puts it, in a discussion of Del Rey’s video for ‘Ride’, ‘on the one hand Del Rey’s visual aesthetics celebrate the artificiality of the concept of identity, but on the other it permanently recalls and reverts to a layer of basic needs, a kind of existential sediment. And this sediment is the white trash milieu and the dark side of the glamorous vamp – the “Lolita lost in the hood”.
Well, if LDR is busy swathing us in the hypnotically dangerous luxuries of our consumerist superficiality, Father John Misty playfully deconstructs the Dylanesque vision of the Authentic American Troubadour. Boasting a slick of unkempt hair and overgrown beard, clad in oversized blazers and psychedelic shirts unbuttoned to the chest, Misty embodies a certain skewed archetype: the balladeering minstrel meets the ironic fashion codes of the hipster. Part shaman, mystic and lumberjack, with a name that belongs on the church fronts of some dazzling circus marquee of hell, Misty preaches lyrics which veer between the madly sarcastic, derisive and painfully sincere. Significantly, he had a cameo appearance in Del Rey’s video for ‘Freak’, playing a psychedelic, acid-gobbling 1960s mystic. He sings about love, married life, American culture, Hollywood glamour, sexual encounters and dodgy drug trips. His lyrics are a heteroglot mix of discourses, from religion to sentimental love songs to internet/text chat: ‘I Went to the Store One Day’ describes how a chance encounter in a ‘parking lot’ ends up in a ragged and passionate love affair and the dream of sharing a ‘plantation house’ because it’s ‘cheaper in the South’. Here, the classic Beat dream of heading south or west is repackaged as the ironically doomed trajectory of a metamodern love affair, where the singer’s genuine passion and emotion – ‘don’t let me die in a hospital’ – concludes with a terse ‘Insert here a sentiment re: our golden years’ which seems to belong more in some experimental flash fiction piece than it does in a pop song. While Jeff Buckley reworked the troubadour ethic embodied by his folk-singing father, Tim Buckley, by combining its heartfelt honesty with the raw, Iron Maiden-style grating expression of the electric guitar and the howling vocal, Misty often dabbles in the meta, endlessly reminding us that we are listening to a FJM record, with all the symbolic contextual discourse that entails. On ‘Bored in the USA’, he weaves in a laugh track, which twists what could be a Dylanesque ballad on the dystopian state of our present society into a cynical self-reflection on the potential meaningless of art that strives to counter or represent this meaninglessness in the rest of culture.
Which brings us to the question: how successful can pop cultural art be when it is so far engrained in the corporate machine? Frankfurt school philosopher Theodore Adorno was fairly sceptical of its potential. He argued that
attempts to bring political protest together with “popular music”—that is, with entertainment music—are for the following reason doomed from the start. The entire sphere of popular music, even there where it dresses itself up in modernist guise, is to such a degree inseparable from past temperament, from consumption, from the cross-eyed transfixion with amusement, that attempts to outfit it with a new function remain entirely superficial […].
Thus as soon as an artist starts singing critically about the Iraq war, the current political system and so on, they risk turning these elements into commodities, and in the process cheapening not only the impact of their critique but also risk making light of the events themselves. Mathijs Peters uses the example of Green Day’s American Idiot (2004) album to illustrate how pop-cultural protest gets transformed into simply another commodity. Green Day’s album, where the very title was a stab at pop culture (American Idiot/American Idol), presented a damning attack on the Bush administration and the wasted life of the junk-filled suburbs in the wake of late capitalism. Released on a Warner Bros. music label, it shot to great success, collecting a bunch of Grammy awards along the way. In the process, Peters (2015: 1348) argues, the band ‘became part of the same sensationalist establishment they tried to critique […] of the consumption culture and the corporal establishment that they explicitly distanced themselves from in the lyrics of American Idiot’. Indeed, I remember, as an avid young fan at the time, being able to buy Green Day merchandise in Claire’s Accessories (and on Ayr High Street, nonetheless). Obviously this is a perennial problem for punk in general and Green Day themselves addressed the alienating experience of being considered ‘sell-outs’ much earlier in their career; specifically, on ’86’ – a song from Insomniac (1995) which attacks the band from the perspective of the grassroots punk community from which they sprung.
One way to tackle the problem of being a sellout is to whole-heartedly embrace chart success and the exposure and coverage it brings. While some bands act cool and sly in the shadows of underground punk scenes, others deliberately whore themselves out to the mainstream. The question here is whether or not this can be considered an act of Situationist critique; Situationism being Guy Debord’s (non)term relating to the theory or practical activity of constructing situations (it’s not a movement exactly but perhaps best considered a set of critical practices). The specific mode of Situationist statement which musicians can employ is that of détournement: a method of propaganda which integrates existing artistic productions into a new, revised assemblage of a social milieu or event. An example of this would be to take the iconography of some element of mainstream politics or discourse and embody it to an extreme in new contexts so as to parody and reconfigure its meaning in a critical sense. We might think of the Manics’ James Dean Bradfield on Top of the Pops, performing Faster in between funeral pyres, clad in a terrorist balaclava. By bringing this aggressive masculine iconography into the commercial camp of Top of the Pops, and coupling the sinister symbol of the balaclava with the childish chalk scrawl ‘JAMES’, the band succeeded in challenging our existing conception of military imagery, estranging it through a combination of extremity and playful absurdism. Peters argues:
In line of Situationist thinking, the message [the Manics] tried to get across was not expressed in subtle arguments: the band sought to hijack the sloganeering techniques of consumerism, more specifically of tabloid journalism, presenting their message in the form of a radically distorted consumerism, turning its own techniques against itself.
(Peters 2015: 1357)
Yet in turning consumerism against itself, this aesthetic-political impulse is not simple postmodern irony; there is genuine sincerity, fury and passion in the performance. As with metamodernism, there is an oscillation between the postmodern collage of images and a kind of modernist sincerity, a slightly Eliotic misanthropy. Indeed, most Manics albums are plastered with quotes with all the great modernists, from Nietzsche to Camus and e.e. cummings (later albums, such as Futurology (2014) were also overtly influenced by German expressionism). The modernist imprint is coupled with the performative playfulness of postmodern Bowie or Talking Heads, and the effect is one that is jarring and alienating while also heated and emotional, a far cry from the ironic cool of postmodernism.
The Manics have often explicitly stated their desire for chart success, describing their 2010 album, Postcards from a Young Man, as a ‘last shot at mass communication’. This explicitly Adornian imagery of mass communication suggests an explicit engagement with the ‘culture machine’ for the purposes of widespread societal critique, using the platform of pop culture to put forward a political message. While Nicky Wire is pretty forthright about his politics, giving an earnest, engaged (and let’s face it, depressingly rare these days) left-wing energy to many of his interviews, Father John Misty is far more elliptical. The lines between performance and authenticity are continually blurred. Misty blithely admits to his penchant for merchandise, stating with deadpan seriousness in a somewhat disastrous BBC 6Music interview that he and his management ‘have come up with an algorithm [for crowd-surfing] that more or less correlates to march sales’. The interview becomes a kind of performance art, with Misty critiquing Radcliffe and Maconie for ‘leading me with blunt questions’ at the same time as deliberately berating them with obtuse or self-aggrandisingly bombastic answers. Once again, we have that bewildering oscillation between irony and sincerity: how seriously does Misty take his art? It’s quite possible that Misty, an American (and thus supposedly without irony), has trumped the British interviewers with his enigmatic sarcasm, a kind of David Foster Wallace-esque intellectual posturing. At once, he’s arguing for the genuine ‘empathy’ he hopes to achieve in his songs, and talking about how he loves the idea of having merchandised jeggings. He bitterly denigrates music that has a didactic message critiquing society or popular music, saying, ‘any kind of didactic hair splitting post punk competing ideologies make me want to puke’ – we’re looking at you, Half Man Half Biscuit.
Still, you’d be forgiven for thinking Misty is a bit of a hypocrite on this. After all, didn’t he famously disrupt one of his festival performances this summer to embark on a tirade against the role of the entertainment industry in propagating the impulse of the Trump presidential campaign? It’s worth listening to the whole speech to get a flavour for whether it’s a genuine spontaneous rant or a scripted act of performance art. While (if YouTube comments are anything to go by) Misty was widely lambasted and ridiculed for his speech – there’s the whole commercial thing of we’ve paid for a gig, we expect some music – there’s something eerily authentic and indeed rousing about it. The crowd starts cheering (somewhat limply, but still) and at one point a guy shouts out, as if in a gospel church, ‘preach Father, preach!’. We can’t tell if he’s being ironic, merely citing and regurgitating religious discourse out of context for fun, but the effect is still palpable. It becomes a kind of surrealist visual event, where even the audience start to channel the symbolic implications of Misty’s name. We usually associate rockstars interrupting their performance for garbled declarative speeches with some kind of ensuing personal breakdown (The Libertines, Green Day and the Manics have all been caught up in this), but here Misty’s speech is both controlled and has the rhythm of natural pondering. He gets into the rhythm of complaint and disgust; it’s broad daylight, bright sunshine, and he’s shouting,
[…] do you people realise we have an entertaining tyrant [TRUMP] right now…like, HILARIOUS. I don’t know how I can rationally respond right now…do we think that our hilarious tyrant is going to be met with a hilarious revolution? […] how entertaining should this be right now? […] how fucking fun should this be? How fucking fun can it be? Can it be real in any sense?
And in fact there’s a definite poignancy to this speech now that Trump has in fact become President of the United States. The hilarious tyrant has won. He’s no longer a cartoon character. Misty is deliberately pushing us to at once take the hilarious approach (why stage this absurdist political intervention at a gig, and not a political convention?) and to critically assess our complicity in letting this happen, in at once not taking Trump seriously but also normalising him as part of discourse, allowing him to settle comfortably among the daily media news cycle. He confronts full-on the problem of singing more explicit protest songs like ‘Bored in the USA’ in a context where nothing seems real anymore, admitting the struggle to make this song entertainment (and thus as much worth as Trump’s speeches) by singing it live to an audience. Misty’s lyrics to ‘Bored in the USA’ capture post-recession America with a wry cynicism which deconstructs and modernises all-American superstar Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ for the prozac-numbed Millennial generation. By bringing up his unease at playing the song, Misty hints at Adorno’s suspicion of pop music’s limited powers of protest. In doing so, he adds a layer of further meta-critique, which benefits the overall thrust of his performance. There’s a romanticism, a kind of soap-box politics which is refreshing and comes across as both sincere and slightly poke-the-online-lion’s-nest kind of IRL trolling.
This is a man who can perform a heartbreaking cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird on a Wire’ with absolute, devastating emotional conviction, who speaks in the lingo of the college boy, littering his interviews with ‘dude’ and ‘man’. Who can doll out such colourful and risqué phrases as ‘hickory smoked abortion’ to describe the state of current US culture. Who can express dreamlike fantasies of masochism alongside the cutesy cuddly scene of bringing two (probably organic, thrice roasted) coffees back to the domestic bliss of his girlfriend’s bed (as in the video for ‘Nancy From Now On’). Who can evoke New Age mysticism and the blisses of married life at the same time as derisively mocking a lover from the perspective of a condemning, world-weary academic: ‘She says, like literally, music is the air she breathes / And the malaprops make me want to fucking scream / I wonder if she even knows what that word means / Well, it’s literally not that’. While songs like ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.’ could be considered postmodern, in the sense that a) it’s meta, referring to Tillman as if he were an outside character and b) it’s lyrically ripping apart the female love object in, perhaps, a riff of Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 130’ c) it’s also musically self-consciously deconstructing a love song, twinkling xylophone and yearning strings ’n’ all. However, you could also consider it a sincere rendering of the shallowness of identities in a relationship that’s no longer working/never worked; as Misty bluntly admits, ‘I feel so unconvincing / when I fumble with your buttons’. I particularly love when he plucks a piece of internet lingo like ‘convo’ and rhymes it sublimely with ‘cosmos’. There’s a sense that these are love songs repackaged for the cynical age of Reddit, but flavoured with a conviction that suggests genuine empathy with the character(s) in the songs (Misty himself?) and the act of songwriting as an authentic act of self-expression or cultural engagement (so here more Tumblr than Reddit). After all, the polished production and tight arrangements suggest less jagged punk aggression/destruction and instead a sophisticated reworking of various musical discourses.
Like Lana Del Rey, Misty likes to skirt on the line between Hollywood glamour and its dark underbelly of heartbreak, superficiality and personal travesty; between a deliberate reworking of commercial codes and cultural images and the sincerity of genuinely heartfelt songs in the tradition of the tragic romantic songwriter (Neil Young for Misty, Billie Holliday for Del Rey). The old American road song is reworked (‘Nothing Good Ever Happens at The Goddamn Thirsty Crow’ for Misty, ‘Ride’ for LDR). The whole purpose of a pop star is reworked. What is unique and provocative about these artists is their insistence on refusing to concede the binary between fantasy/reality, performance/authenticity, their constant negotiation and deliberate reworking of cultural codes. In an age where a HILARIOUS TYRANT can become President of the United States, where radical politics is shrouded in apathy, where most discourse on celebrity culture is profoundly pessimistic and negative, maybe it’s time to recognise the celebrities who are subtly challenging the system from within, and start taking seriously (with a bittersweet pinch of playful cynicism) a new Situationism?
Bibliography (all other sources referenced in hyperlinks):
Peters, Mathijs, 2015. ‘Adorno Meets Welsh Alternative Rock Band Manic Street Preachers: Three Proposed Critical Models’, The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 48, No. 6, pp. 1346-1373.
[…This is a story that has undergone many drafts in the past 6 years. It originated as the first piece I wrote (after not writing anything creative for over two years) for my Advanced Higher English Creative Writing Portfolio, which was (to the great frustration of my English teacher), altered about 500 times and in the end we decided it wasn’t quite suitable for submitting. So yeah, it was left alone on some dusty corner of an old harddrive until 2013 when I tried on a whim to redraft it again. What started as a gothic, emo-inflected horror story about the loathing of one’s body was fleshed out with some more character development, an unnecessary amount of diegesis and detail. When the opportunity came to submit a ghost story for GUCW’s Halloween Short Story Competition, I decided to revisit this strange tale again. This time, I didn’t just add or cut, I wrote the whole thing out from scratch. In a way it’s completely different, but the plot is mostly the same, and it takes place over the course of one day. I like when stories do that, because time is quite a stressful thing. Let me know what you think…]
Every morning, the sunrise grew stranger; sometimes it was difficult to tell it apart from sunset, the distinction between day and night dissolving altogether. Recently, whole hours had been disappearing, afternoons and mornings lost like cells melting in the bloodstream heat of a vein under pressure. Before getting dressed for school, Maya got up very early and stood at her bedroom window to watch the sunrise. There was something about the queer, flesh-like light, pink clouds streaked with red, which made her skin tingle weirdly. While she watched the colours change, the clouds pull apart as if exposing a wound, she sometimes forgot that she inhabited a body at all.
Often she wondered if she was actually alive; if there wasn’t some other reason for her walking across the cold tile floor at six in the morning, looking over her shoulder, pulling the scratchy woollen socks above her knees, flipping open the lid of her laptop to check her emails. Such a pointless task, the checking of one’s emails, and yet…
There it was again. The email from herself. MAYA. No surname given. At first, she had found one in the depths of her Spam folder, but now it had bounced back to her inbox. She had received one of these emails every day for the past week. It was foolish to open such a message, which she knew could be nothing but some cheap, automatised attempt at tricking her into activating a virus…And yet. The house was still dark, her mother asleep. Only flickers of yellow gold from the sunrise oozed on the floor of the kitchen where Maya sat with her laptop, the shiny varnished floor which seemed to guzzle the light, crave it. It wouldn’t bounce back its heat. Shivering, she opened the email.
At school, the people who were and were not her friends called her Mad Maya.Mad Maya, Mad Maya. Leaving her house, she took the familiar route through the ancient copse of fir trees and across the village green, every morning rehearsing the childish chorus, rucksack thumping heavy against her back. Sometimes she heard her classmates’ whispers in the rustlings of the trees, as if the world itself regarded her with equal harshness. Today, the voices were louder than ever. It was impossible to draw sense from that chaos of lashing language. There was a familiar tone beneath the rasping exterior, a familiar tone that jarred unpleasantly with Maya’s attempts to forget the words that swirled up around her in flurry after violent flurry. By the time she had pushed open the school gates, bumped cigarettes off Dodgy John with her lunch money and followed the ring of the school bell, she was physically shaking.
In science class, the teacher was trying to explain how blood gets pumped around the body. The girl sat beside Maya was mindlessly scribbling love hearts all over her jotter. The teacher mouthed the words at them, but no sound seemed to come out; everything had slowed down, as if underwater. Words materialised on the board: atrium, Vena cava, tricuspid, ventricle, pulmonary artery, semilunar, aorta…Lush, intangible, otherworldly words. Every time Maya tried to write them down, her hands shook uncontrollably and the pencil fell from her fingers, clattering conspicuously on the floor. The more she learned about human biology, the more foreign she felt in her own body, as if she were discovering some hideous secret from all those diagrams and lists of words.
If she lifted her book off the desk at the end—which she must have done, because somehow she got out that class with her things—she would have seen the graffiti underneath, a kind of ancient inscription in jagged letters: M A D M A Y A. She did not recognise the handwriting, but it sent a jolt through her. It was possible that she had seen this before.
She found herself home early. The house was silent and her mother was still out at work. There was no car in the drive, not a single dish piled in the sink. Sometimes Maya worried that her mother would disappear. How little she ate! Then there were the useless prayers she still eked out before bed, kneeling by the living room window, where on clear winter nights you could see the moon, flooding the carpet with silvery light.
O, wash me, cleanse me from this guilt. Let me be pure again…Restore to me the joy of your salvation.
Sometimes, the susurrations and mutters of her mother’s prayers haunted Maya’s dreams. There was a time when she stayed out later and later, wandering the streets, just to avoid them. If only she knew what single guilty thing her pious mother had done in her life; that central act of transgression that seemed to define her, irrevocably, as this fragile, selfless being. Often the act pressed itself so heavily on Maya’s mind, massive and burning like some elaborate tapestry set fire to by Satan, that she could almost unpick its outline and form. But it was possible that she would never discover the truth as to why her father left soon after she was born, why on a daily basis her mother clutched God’s cross so tight around her neck.
She tried to sit down and do her maths homework, focusing slowly on the sums, as if each one were a special code she needed to disentangle, to find the kernel of meaning, the way they did with poems in English, scanning words on a page and picking at them, as if each one was a stitch. The problem was, each time she held a few figures in her head, they were snatched away—it literally seemed as if some force were wrenching the numbers and crushing them into some dark part of her unconscious. Some day in the future, perhaps, she would again encounter those fractions, sets of ones and twos, sixes and sevens, come to divide and splice her mind. The lines and figures appeared shakily on the page. Suddenly, the phone rang.
“Yes dear, it’s me!”
“Oh, Gran. Hi.”
“I’m just checking up on you dearie, it’s been so long.”
“Are you busy just now, fancy a chat?”
“Doing my homework.” It was such an effort to talk at all; the words felt garbled in Maya’s mouth, like hieroglyphs.
“Oh, I’m dreadfully sorry—I didn’t mean to disturb you. I’ll let you get on then, I—”
“You sound sad my child. You go and get yourself a wee biscuit or something. The sugar will help. I hope it’s not too difficult, what you’re doing, I—”
“Bye, Gran.” Maya clicked off the phone before her grandmother could finish speaking. She did not replace it properly on its hook and the cord dangled obscenely from the wall.
With mechanical obedience, she opened the cupboard and pulled out a packet of digestives, holding them in her hand as if they were some foreign food and she did not know what to do with them. Her hands were shaking again. Slowly she took out a biscuit, and tentatively bit it. She could not hold it in her mouth, and she ran to the sink, gagging. Some alien sensation seized her and she knew she could not eat, though something like hunger ached vaguely in her stomach, spreading up to her chest, settling in the centre as some unwelcome glow of pain.
Perhaps it was heartburn. She poured herself a glass of milk from the fridge, remembering an old trick of her mother’s to cure it. She lifted the glass to her lips but suddenly stopped. On the surface of the milk was a thin, quivering skin. Bile rose in Maya’s throat. She thought of jellylike scabs, wobbling with pus and blood underneath. The smell was gross yet oddly familiar, primordial somehow, like the smell of a womb. The glass dropped from her hand and shattered on the tiles, the milk bursting everywhere, sour and white, spraying itself on Maya’s clothes and skin, where it clung like some viral, viscous substance.
She slumped to the floor, momentarily paralysed. The sound of the phone off the hook resounded throughout the house, a pulsing, crackling sound that came from somewhere else: please check and try again.
As usual, she had met him at lunch, by the neck of the woods where the sycamores draped over the river, the river that wound round the whole village like an elaborate, snaking artery. Every Wednesday and Friday they would skive class together and nobody had ever noticed. He was two years older. They walked into the woods together, not clasping hands until they were shrouded in darkness, and even then, it was not clear how it happened, who made the first move. At this time of year, the mid-afternoon light was very white, shining down in strange beams through the thick canopy of trees. They would find their secret place. Each time it felt new to Maya, though she suspected that the boy hardly cared. If she came here alone, she would never be able to find the place.
Gently, he unravelled her from her school clothes, her hair coming loose in his fingers, her tights scrunched to a ball on the forest floor, crumpled like a shed skin. Her body was lily-white in the cool forest light, her shoulders exposed to the shivers of the trees and the tear-like glimmers that clung to the needles. Each time, he would run his hand automatically up her stomach; he would trace the long scar that ran up her left side. He would trace it slowly, lovingly, as if he were following the seam of a secret. The mark of ruined flesh. They never spoke of it, but each time he would reach down to trace it, to read it like braille, even as they kissed. Once, the sensation had given her delicious shivers, but now it meant nothing at all. Before, it had even been slightly painful, the scar so tender under his touch. Now, she could hardly feel it at all.
“I had a transplant,” she told him, the first time he asked. That was all she knew. She had never bothered to learn more of her own body; the boy had taught her all she wanted to know.
His flesh was pale and silver, a latticework of pulsing, blueish veins, but even as he pulled her over his body, she could not feel him. He was light as air and her body was not her body.
It was as if she were watching herself from afar, a child crouching behind a tree, stricken with terror and curiosity. She felt sick afterwards, and in fact even retched a little. He passed her a cigarette. She could hear the trees whispering again, and this time it sounded as if they were calling her name. Mad Maya, Mad Maya.
Possibly it was nightfall, sunset, the house so quiet, her mother asleep. The email lay open on the screen, its contents splayed out and glaring their strange incandescence across Maya’s bedroom. A chorus of acid colours spilled liltingly, tauntingly through the window. The ache had deepened in her chest, so deep it felt like her own veins were strangling her heart. It was difficult to breathe, with the dust of the room and the air that filled her lungs like spider webs mushed to molasses.
There was the collage of her entire life: comically vicious stick-figure drawings from her primary school jotters, school reports, doctor reports, notes to friends, reams and reams of texts, the carefully-typed emails she had sent to the nurse, impassioned diary entries scrawled in that distinct thirteen-year-old hand. Traces of the white powder devoured at weekends, the imprints of the boy’s kisses on her shoulders and neck, captured uncannily, impossibly, as polaroid photos, the bruises glowing through the skin like ghosts. Nothing felt real anymore. Maya hitched the laptop closer on her lap and peered at the pictures. Each one was a palimpsest, layered below streams of lurid red typewritten print: Mad Maya;parasite; murderer; the wrong child; sinner and sinner and sinful and sin. She shivered and gasped. She felt the screen start to shimmer, the pixels elasticating, blurring, the LCD surface beginning to compress and open, like a portal.
For a moment, the power cut off. A reflection appeared in the darkness of the screen: there were two Mayas, conjoined at the waist and the chest, struggling for breath. As the light flickered back on, the bodies flashed negative as if under x-ray, and in that second it was possible to glimpse the single aorta, throbbing like a terrible eel, tangled between the two bodies.
The laptop’s screen had cracked, but it didn’t matter. A silver moon beamed its single slice of light, guillotine thin, upon the glass.
How beautiful the world is! In the mirror the girl ran her hands through her hair, she felt the lovely inky glossiness of it, the way her skin was so soft and milky. A finger ran up the length of the scar on the right side of her body; in its crosslinks of knotted collagen she could read a virginal history. She picked up a notebook from the bed and felt its pages skim beneath her fingertips, delicate and full of possibility. A whole life to be written on those lines. The girl found herself at the window, yanking open the glass with fresh young limbs. The night air was cool and ambrosial; the air smelled of wild pines and the coming snow. The heat around her heart started to liquefy, spreading a pleasant warmth through her blood. Yes.
On the desk, a phone buzzed with a text: Where are you, why can’t I reach you?
Dark Ecology and Haunted Technology in Stranger Things
(warning: this essay lacks coherence; think of it more as a wandering, a haunting of deranged, half-baked ideas)
In our time, the soul has been progressively more materialised. That the soul should now be thought to be, no longer purely immaterial, but constituted from a range of different forms of exotic or tenuous matter is a proof of the necessity of physics for any metaphysics
(Steven Connor, ‘Her Light Materials’).
In her book Phantasmagoria, Marina Warner explores the way in which, from the seventeenth century onwards, we have increasingly relied upon various forms of matter in order to discursively figure the soul: visual apparatuses, natural elements, shadows, reflections, wax and technology are just some of the material modes by which the soul is embodied in the ‘modern’ era. This emphasis on things and substances as they bear forth not only selfhood but also the spiritual manifestation of self is crucial to an ecological understanding of humanity’s vision of itself in a post-industrial age where such substances, through our own actions, have contaminated the earth: the Anthropocene means that our physical activities as humans are literally embedded, embodied and sedimented into the Earth’s geology, ecosystems, climate. In a sense, the human soul, its debris of thingness – whether vaporous or material – is already encrusted within what we can now only tenuously call the environment. For doesn’t an environment presuppose a foreground and background, a subject who inhabits the object(ive) world? What happens when we are the object world? How do we confront the sudden otherness of ourselves, the realisation that we are the earth, and not in some hippie-dippie holism (let’s all hold hands with the animals) but in a frighteningly confrontational reality of material coexistence?
What is striking about Netflix’s Stranger Things is exactly its emphasis on strange things. The suffix draws attention to what we mean by things: who or what are we comparing the stranger things to? Ourselves? The creatures we coexist with, the ones we have already charted, taxonomised, ordered and made familiar through Enlightenment science, zoology and philosophy? How many horror films have we seen where that which is monstrous is not other to us but somehow represents the other within us? As Virginia Woolf said of Henry James’ ghosts: ‘They have their origin within us. They are present whenever the significant overflows our powers of expressing it; whenever the ordinary appears ringed with the strange’ (1921). When what we take as given, as natural or normal–is revealed as inherently disturbed–the boundaries of meaning violently ruptured or haunted, there incurs a fundamental split in what we take to be reality itself. We are forced to question our place in the ‘world’ not just as a human but as a physical subject tout court.
The horror genre is notorious for its representation of creatures who challenge our definition of the natural. Timothy Morton says of John Carpenter’s film The Thing: ‘the supposedly horrific alien is none other than the reproductive, simulative process of nature itself’; the Thing is always shifting its guises, ‘destined never to be itself’ (182). This is the dark allure of the popular horror trope of the viral: that which is always shifting, transforming, responding ‘automatically’ (as in Darwinian) to the conditions of its environment. Think of zombie movies, then also the likes of 28 Days Later, I Am Legend and so on—all are obsessed with the idea of infection, the notion that apocalypse will come because the purity of the human soul and body will be corrupted by some alien force.
However, what terrifies about the virus is the realisation that it is inherent in ‘nature’; as Morton argues, what is ‘monstrous’ about evolution, about the growth of plants and other lifeforms, is that DNA itself is viral: [a]ll organisms are monsters insofar as they are chimeras, made from pieces of other creatures’ (2010: 66). Like Victor Frankenstein’s Creature in Mary Shelley’s novel, all lifeforms are hybridised, made from scraps of other beings; though here the product not of Frankenstein’s experiments in vitalism but of evolution’s functional contamination. As with Derrida’s revelation that language, meaning and being have no presence, but only Différance, Darwin’s theory of evolution, as Morton shows, is similarly predicated on slipperiness, fuzziness, contamination. At the core of existence is not essence, but différance, with all its implications of instability, aporia and fragile, mutually infected binaries. Mutation, in a strong sense, is inherent to ‘nature’ – and by no means are humans excluded from this ‘nature’. Not only do we enmesh with the object world in a corporeal sense (our bodies are not bounded but always escape, fragment – the dust of our skin and hair inhabits the atmosphere) but also in the discursive sense, in the way that Warner has traced: in the literary and aesthetic figuring of the soul as a material thing.
Episode Four of Stranger Things is appropriately named ‘The Body’. Looking down at the corpse of her missing child (Will), Joyce (played by that chimera of the Gothic heroine, Winona Ryder) screams, ‘I don’t know what you think that thing in there is, but that is not my son’. What she feels is not grief, but something ‘different’: she is rubbing up against the fragile boundaries of the symbolic order, feeling the metaphysical structures of the world quiver uncannily around her. Later in the episode, we see her other son, Jonathan, weeping in his room to Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’. The lyrics enact an uncanny duality of dialogue: the imperative to ‘walk in silence’ is retracted immediately with ‘don’t walk away, in silence’: the whole song, with its slow, shimmering synths and shuddering drums enacts a play between presence and absence, the corporeal and incorporeal: ‘Naked to see / Walking on air / Hunting by the rivers’. Like The Cure’s ‘A Forest’, there is a maddening sense of pursuit, the lost object dissolving into silence while the mournful subject can only wander through the song in his melancholia, pursuing ‘through the streets’ but only to abandon ‘every corner […] too soon’. There is no closure, only this ‘atmosphere’ of absence sprinkled with the ghostly possibilities of presence elusive.
With Will’s ersatz body we confront the indeterminate state between life and death, the physical remains which should suggest closure and yet speak of something silent, unsayable. What is this strange body cast up before her? Surely not the son, who she is sure is not dead yet, who she has heard calling for her through the telephone…Later, when Hopper, the police chief, takes a knife to the chest of the corpse, he sees it to be synthetic, stuffed like a pillow. Matter contained in matter; this time, not human matter, but simple object matter. We are suddenly pointed to a deeper conspiracy (the Department of Energy and the MK Ultra experiments), but at the same time the suspense of Hopper’s puncturing is playing upon our abject reaction to the corpse as that which contains within it both life and death. What disgusts us in the carving of cadavers is the fact that it is even possible; the tear of the body representing the tear of all we have taken for granted in our usual embodied lives as similar beings, wrapped up in what we thought was the same fabric of reality.
What is uncanny about a human corpse? It reminds us of the presence of death within everyday existence, it shows us, in visceral, stinking, mattering manner, ‘what I permanently thrust aside in order to live’ – it is ‘death infecting life’ (Kristeva 1982: 3). Stranger Things is obsessed with appearance and reality, with the hidden networks of existence which haunt the outward façade of daily life in small-town Indiana. As the title suggests, part of this interplay of appearance and reality is the necessary strangeness of things: not just the gory, pulp-horror monsters that haunt our nightmares but the strangeness of all we take for granted as normal—the family home, the general ‘good’ of the government’s intentions and the rule of the law; the clear boundary between life and death, presence and absence, self and other. We might think of Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet (1986), bending down in the lush green grass of a suburban garden to lift that grotesque, insect-swarmed severed ear from the ground: the sudden onrush of magnified sound that signals our entrance into the underworld, the seedy, violent and parallel reality which exists aside our everyday lives. This essay will attempt an exploration of sorts into Stranger Thing’s heart of darkness: its uncanny depiction of the interrelations between bodies, technologies and nature, the living and the dead.
My central focus will concern how ethereal, inter-worldly transmission is figured through technology and also how its representation of abjection and the viscous, sticky enmeshment of the Upside-Down contributes to a renewed understanding of what constitutessuch taken-for-granted things as nature, environment, world. I will argue that the show’s obsession with death as an ontological condition and its depiction of both communication and rupture is not just a parable of Cold War paranoia over the presence of the (Communist) Other within, but also challenges the ethics and poetics of how we approach the non-human Other in the context of late capitalism, i.e. ecological crisis and technological modernity.
One of the most terrifying aspects of the Monster/Creature/Demogorgon is its lack of a face; the fact that it cannot return the gaze of its onlookers, who can only look into the void of its flesh and see substance, reminding them that they too are substance—that the boundary between the human and monstrous is decidedly fragile. The Dementors in Harry Potter are similarly frightening because they lack eyes: where the eyes should be, the sockets are covered over with scabby, corpse-like skin. In Neil Gaiman’s children’s novella, Coraline, in the parallel, looking-glass world that Coraline finds ‘through the door’, her Other Mother and Other Father seem physically identical to their originals, except that their eyes have been replaced with black buttons. Freud famously outlined his theory of the uncanny through a close reading of E. T. A. Hoffman’s ‘The Sandman’ (1816), a dark Germanic fable about a creature who visits children and tears out their eyes. Freud very cleverly links the fear of blindness back to castration anxiety, but for my purposes, the uncanniness of losing one’s sight is partly due to perception itself. If our eyes are associated with discerning the real world of impressions around us, how can we without them tell if we are living in reality?
Moreover, when we encounter creatures without eyes, what are we to make of their consciousness? If eyes are ‘windows to the soul’ as the saying goes, can there be a soul without eyes? Coexistence can happen on an intelligible level if the animal can return our gaze: Derrida, in ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, has written about his experience of being looked at and looking back at the animal, namely, his cat staring in confusion at his naked body; and we have all had a moment of silent exchange with a stranger’s pet, eyes meeting by chance perhaps but lingering…and in that lingering is the suggestion of an understanding between species, the troubling of notions of inside/outside, human/nonhuman.
Yet how do we interact with a creature who cannot return the gaze? A thing without facial features is ontologically unstable somehow, unable to establish presence through meaningful expression: ‘the phantasm is the sign of that visible incorporeality. The image I see returns as both the spectral figure of myself as other, and yet also it figures in its return the immanence of my disappearance’ (Dick and Wolfreys 2015: 139). Could we relate this ‘visible incorporeality’ to the Creature of Stranger Things? It is certainly figured as corporeal, as Nancy and Jonathan embark on a hunting mission to slay it like any old dragon or wildebeest, but then again, it is not of our world – it comes from the other place, the Upside-Down. Seeing the Creature, the characters are faced with its impossibility, which in turn incurs an ontological rupture whereby they themselves witness the flashing vanishing of matter. Barb’s sudden disappearance, for instance: the play of sensory impressions that distorts all sense of space and time in the woods.
Significantly, the Creature is not the only ‘monster’ that haunts Stranger Things. Throughout the show, El is in a sense a ‘monstrous’ figure. Her origins are unknown. Stripped of hair, with a boyish figure, she maintains an androgynous appearance; the boys’ attempts to prettify her with a wig and makeup enact a bizarre transformation which only serves to heighten her strangeness, as she appears more doll-like, the sudden deliberation of her actions running uncannily counter to her appearance, which would be that of an automaton if she were a living doll (or indeed, the escaped hospital patient possibility suggested by her bald scalp and hospital gown). Her fate, like Safie in Frankenstein (who provides a parallel figure of exile for the Creature, welcomed with hospitality while he is crudely expelled from the De Lacey home) seems inextricably tied up with that of the Creature: in the final episode, its vanishing at the command of her telekinesis simultaneously enacts her own vanishing from the concrete world of the boys and the classroom. It might’ve been interesting to make the Creature a more sympathetic life form, rather than a screaming reaction of base violence which actively preys on humans, just to give some extra ambiguity to the order of things; but even so, it’s still possible to have some sympathy for the Demogorgon (and not just because it seems the live manifestation of a beloved strategy game)—after all, it represents ‘nature’ in all its savage instincts, linking back to what I was saying earlier about monstrosity and evolution.
In order to defeat the Creature, to seek out Will in the Upside-Down, El has to recreate the sensory deprivation experiments which were conducted upon her in the Department of Energy lab. Floating in the water, she appears Christ-like, as if her soul must endure the rituals of crucifixion in order to bring back Will from the Upside-Down (symbolic immersion?). Like Nancy, she is deathly thin, her physical presence pale against the strong personalities of the male characters. Her corporeal existence is almost shimmering: she is slow at first, learning words and meanings, piecing things together. Not only does this emphasise the shock of her telekinetic powers, but also it sediments the show’s strange interplay between the ethereal and material.
Stranger Thing’s preoccupation with eating is one manifestation of this. It’s all very Freudian. Jonathan makes eggs for his mother and tries to get her to eat. Arguments occur round the family dinner table. In the Upside-Down, Nancy sees the Creature feeding on a deer and realises its attraction to spilt blood. The cadaverous El is always ravenous and is frequently seen eating. In fact, at one point she blithely steals frozen waffles from a supermarket and devours them in the woods. Food is a prominent symbol in fairytales. Food, of course, is closely related to abjection. Fundamentally, the digestion and excretion of food reminds us that we are part of an enmeshment of material things; unfortunately, we cannot transcend the flesh prison which sustains our beautiful souls…Kristeva’s description of the abject reaction of food disgust is worth quoting in full, as her sentences gather a certain pace that mimics the physical spasms of reaction, the desire to expel the self in the experience of disgust from the food object which reminds us that we too are bodies, layered and soft and mortal:
Food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection. When the eyes see or the lips touch that skin on the surface of milk—harmless, thin as a sheet of cigarette paper, pitiful as a nail paring—I experience a gagging sensation and, still farther down, spasms in the stomach, the belly; and all the organs shrivel up the body, provoke tears and bile, increase heartbeat, cause forehead and hands to perspire. Along with sight-clouding dizziness, nausea makes me balk at that milk cream, separates me from the mother and father who proffer it. “I” want none of that element, sign of their desire; “I” do not want to listen, “I” do not assimilate it, “I” expel it. But since the food is not an “other” for “me,” who am only in their desire, I expel myself. I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which “I” claim to establish myself. That detail, perhaps an insignificant one, but one that they ferret out, emphasise, evaluate, that trifle turns me inside out, guts sprawling; it is thus that they see that “I” am in the process of becoming an other at the expense of my own death. During that course in which “I” become, I give birth to myself amid the violence of sobs, of vomit.
(Kristeva 1982: 2-3)
The inside-out unsheathing of the body and its skin (the skin of flesh, the flesh of food) mirrors the Upside-Down Alice in Wonderland reversal and parallel convergence of realities. There is always a reversal, another possible surface. The mutation. Nothing is stable but always in movement. The spasms here mirror the shrieking of the self in the grip of grief: in Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer’s mother shrieking in hysteria; in Stranger Things, Joyce Byers rattling with terror as she storms around her own home, trying to find her lost son. The psychosexual implications of Kristeva’s passage are also relevant to Stranger Things because, let’s face it, there is something womblike and vaginal about the viscous, flora-infested environment of the Upside-Down, its gross and mollusc-like mucus and glistening ectoplasm. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Nancy loses her virginity the same night that her best friend Barb is sucked into that orifice-like portal of the monstrous feminine, the gooey nether-zone where she will find herself woven into the lining, her body penetrated by the infestations of disgusting slug and snake-like creatures. Like Cinderella, Barb pricks her finger (though on a crunched beer can, not a spindle) and is doomed to some sort of eternal sleep.
At one point in the show, one of the lab workers enters the portal in the Department of Energy and despite clinging to a rope, is irrevocably drawn into the depths, never to see the light of day again as the mouth of the portal closes. There’s the whole vagina dentata (religious myth of the toothed vagina) psychoanalytic strand here which would be interesting to pursue, especially as the implications of castration anxiety connect back to the Creature’s missing eyes/face. As in Twin Peaks, the portal to the other world (Black Lodge) will only open under certain conditions. With Kristeva’s passage on the skin of milk, we can think about how the entrance to the Upside-Down is itself an instance of abjection: the expelling of bodies and matter between worlds. The inside is clearly toxic as the lab workers don protective suits to enter; there is even a suggestion of the post-nuclear landscape in the way that an ash-like matter floats in the atmosphere, again fitting in with the monstrous nature/alien space theme.
As Nancy tumbles out from the forest portal (housed inside a tree), sticky with all the weird stuff that comes off the world’s ‘lining’, she is quivering with terror in a manner reminiscent of Kristeva in the rejection of the milk. Freud theorised that young boys were scared of their mothers due to the fear she would castrate them, and maybe there’s a reading that the whole show is some phantasmagoric, dreamlike manifestation of the terror of the overbearing ‘hysteric’ mother (Joyce). The winding strands of plant-like matter, snake-like and strange, are reminiscent too of Medusa’s head. Freud has a whole essay, ‘Medusa’s Head’ (1922), on the possibility/implications of Medusa’s head taking ‘the place of a representation of female genitals, or rather if it isolates their horrifying effects from their pleasure-giving ones is familiar in other connections as an apotropaic act’—namely, the commitment of evil. Interesting how Stranger Things teases with the gendering here: the male-dominated U.S. Government vs. monstrous feminine nature – which is more evil? Science or the (super)natural? I think the Alien films are probably the most obvious Stranger Things intertext here, but the very fact that the show wears its myriad influences on its sleeve creates a web-like structure of inference that opens itself up to multiple readings that cut across the cultural timelines of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, spreading out monstrously, contaminating discourses both pop cultural and scientific.
The show plays constantly with this weirdly distorted womb/plant/viscous/genitals imagery and I can’t help but think perhaps it represents some kind of monstrous mother nature, the vengeance of the earth against the interfering experiments with time-space enacted by the US Government and its Department of Energy…Hyperobjects like global warming, plutonium and oil slicks are defined partly by their viscosity: ‘the more you know about a hyperobject, the more entangled with it you realise you already are’ (Morton 2010a). The more we as viewers learn about the strange world of the Upside-Down, the more we see it in our own reality. Monstrous, oozing nature. Ourselves in the mirror: the strange stranger – the notion that the closer we get to other life forms, the weirder they become (Morton 2010b: 17).The constant recurrence of floods and hurricanes and melting ice caps, irrevocably now understood as the consequences of global warming: they acquire an almost anthropomorphised monstrosity.
At the end of the series, Will, restored to apparent ‘reality’ (signified by that most traditional of temporal markers, perhaps the most important date in the calendar, Christmas Day), coughs up a slug-like creature and once again glimpses the Upside-Down again, flashing through the palimpsest surface of the normal world, reminding us of the imprint of the ecological uncanny, the presence of the strange, nonhuman other, within ourselves. I am struck with a line from Coleridge’s poem, ‘The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere’ (1798), where, after facing the nightmare wrath of the storms following his shooting of the albatross (the fatal crime against ‘nature’), the mariner glimpses the gross multitudes of sea-snakes in the ocean below his boat, shimmering among the floating corpses of his fellow sailors, lost to the storm: ‘And they all dead did lie! / And a million million slimy things / Liv’d on – and so did I’. The mushy consonance of the l sounds here recreates the oozing viscosity of all those wriggling bodies, but there is a sense in which the mariner seems to revel in the sheer multitude of these ‘million million slimy things’, as the repetition suggests—their individuality as types of species is beyond his grasp and he can only face them as a kind of hyperobject, the sharp realisation following the caesura (-) indicating the revelation of coexistence, which is both wondrous and terrifying.
Indeed, there’s something about El’s telekinetic powers too, the way they can elasticate reality, bending objects and shattering matter, but at the expense of something inside her, the price of the blood that oozes from her nose each time, signifying her depleted energy. She is no robot, but material and mortal too: the recurrence of the blood and its spilling viscosity insists on this. El’s ‘magic’ enacts a disruption of foreground and background; we cannot just perceive it as magic, for we have witnessed its basis in a kind of scientific experiment within the labs. It comes out of the world, disrupts the subject. Stranger Things is rife with pathetic fallacy – storms and power blackouts – and this isn’t just a contribution to the horror mood but also an underlining of the show’s ecological context and monstrosity: the collapse of weather as mere background, stage-setting, into the narrative itself (the significance of electricity in the show is still to be traced) signals the impossibility of the world as such. ‘We have no world,’ as Morton so aptly puts it, ‘because the objects that functioned as invisible scenery have dissolved’ (2013: 104). What happens when you think through the world as the world, rather than from an anthropocentric viewpoint? Peter Watts has written a short story titled ‘The Things’ which reverses the perspective of Carpenter’s movie, this time telling the story from the virus’ point of view (note the plural things and think back to the mutational plurality/chains of the virus)—once again, disruption of subject/object ordering. What is an alien consciousness? What is nature’s consciousness? The only way we can find out is by recognising nature’s strangeness, and that strangeness is inherently within us too. In Stranger Things, the dissolution of objects is part of the show’s exploration of the uncanny (walls and doors shift, ooze, open and close) in relation to the monstrous (and this is rooted in other themes beyond the scope of my essay; for example, the nuclear family and adolescent sexuality), but also the monstrosity of nature enacting its gross and terrible vengeance against man’s interference: El, little pixie child of the forest as she becomes, is able to manipulate objects, thus denying their status as mere staging and indeed staging them as vitalist forces in themselves (so far, so Object Orientated Ontology?).
On the subject of ‘energy’ and electricity it isn’t just El’s psychic energy and the deceptive title of the ‘Department of Energy’ that resonates in Stranger Things. ‘Energy’ also points us to the vitalist elements of Stranger Things; namely, its interest in the networked relations between humans and technology, the way that communication and transmission rupture not only the fleshly interaction of humans but also the metaphysical boundaries between life and death. For starters, there’s the song played against the opening title: New Order’s ‘Elegia’. What first struck me about this track was the dissonant synths, the way they creep up on you in mesmerising waltz-time, the guitars, piano and synths enveloping one another in counterpoint melodies. NME tells me that the song was written as a tribute to Ian Curtis and it’s almost impossible to listen to the 18-minute track, whose elegiac status is inscribed in the very title, and not think of absence, death, the plunge into void, the journey through its swirling, miasma-like movements which render eerie and maybe even ‘inhuman’ our experience of temporality. Before this contextual note, however, I was weirdly reminded of ‘Lavender Town Syndrome’: the 1990s internet myth surrounding the music from Pokemon Red and Green. The MIDI track from this particular town is indeed extremely jarring, run on two channels so that the sound travels literally through one ear and out of the other and thus fusing in the brain to create a certain sonic effect. There were rumours that this effect caused suicides and seizures until the MIDI track was ‘tamed’ for the American version.
While the story was more or less sheer internet rumour, it’s still provocative and raises questions about the ghostliness (or, as Warner might put it, phantasmagoria) provoked by the phantasmic structures of media technology. Aphex Twin, for example, embedding a spectrograph image inside an audio file, the implications of such a shape upon sound: screeching, searing static. The sound of a ghost trapped in a glitch world? If the glitch is an accident, then what is a ghost? An accident of time and space, trapped in the in-between, reminding us of the fragility of time-space itself? Of being itself? Sound, after all, is temporal; a MIDI track is self-containing in its temporality. You can loop it, but it has a form and a shape, a beginning and ending. Does the ghost have a beginning and ending? When I listen to the original Lavender Town track, I can definitely feel a kind of fuzziness or vibration in my brain, as if the frequencies of my thought were suddenly being played upon, synapses twisted and twanged as if in electro-convulsive therapy; or like the sensory experiments upon the brain portrayed in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and indeed in Stranger Things, inspired by the psychedelic investigations of the 1960s and 70s, name-checked in the show as ‘MK Ultra’ – incidentally, also the title of one of Muse’s most politically paranoid songs. An early configuration of this could be the Romantic Aeolian harp, which represented the mutual ‘play’ of sound, expression, music, poetry and impressions between the world and the artistic mind (see Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’). What these aural effects again reinforce is the dissolving of subject/object, as sounds from the so-called ‘environment’ feed into our brains, penetrate the boundaries of the self and flesh and in doing so enact a kind of digital Heideggarian poeisis, wherein the arrangement of sound itself (like words on the page of a poem), causes something to actually happen, to come into being. What is this being? The experience of terror, a sudden rupture of consciousness as the soundwaves pulse through the brain? Sensation, in its flux, placing us under erasure, as we fall away from consciousness? Where are we now, reaching back for the material symbols of the soul that would save us from the sea of dissonant, consuming music? Stranger Things evokes a rich sonic atmosphere, full of grotesque, squelchy, pulsing, oozing, insect-esque sound effects which trickle the presence of monstrous nature, of the metaphysical strangeness of the Upside-Down and its plant-like materials, straight into our brain.
Attached to the auditory is the technological unfolding of the visual. Throughout the series,photography plays a significant role in the identification of the beast/creature. Following the scopophilic power of the male gaze (and of course another Blue Velvet reference is inevitable here, Jeffrey peeking through the closet at the acts of domestic sexual violence), Jonathan sneaks into the woods to take photos of Steve’s party, snapping pictures of Nancy for whom he harbours a secret desire/teenage love. Yet what remains in the photos isn’t just the form of his beloved, but the strange shape of the beast, captured indelibly in the developed ink:
Photography is a mode of tekhnē– a making appear (technology “makes” something “appear” out of parts, raw materials; it is thus the truth of the physical world; we make, we cause to appear things, commodities, but what does photography make appear? Images made of shadows, light and dark – in this it causes to appear an event no longer there, no longer with us; it gives us to see what we cannot otherwise see.
(Dick and Wolfreys 260)
There is a sense in which photography is, like the New Order track, inherently elegiac—or at the very least, represents the flicker between presence and absence, since the material presence of the photograph is haunted by the absence of what it represents, the not-there, the once-happened. As in the play of light and dark, positive and negative space, the photograph captures the liminal position between presence and absence, matter and ethereality. It is thus, as Barthes shows in Camera Lucida ( 1980), a medium closely associated with death. The shape of the beast is barely distinguishable in the photograph, especially with the added layer of another camera, and the computer screen through which we stream the Netflix content of Stranger Things itself. The temporality of the photograph is thus strangely ephemeral, despite its suggestion of a ‘snapshot’, a reification or fixing of the moment. There is a ghostliness to the photo: ‘it bears witness where there is no witness’ (Dick and Wolfreys 2015: 261); it reduplicates the sense of presence as reading the image bears another kind of birth, the control of the eye/I at the focal point in another space of time which is always overtaken by the image and its embodiment of another time–the displacing and shifting incurring is a kind of haunting.
Think of Twin Peaks, another series whose entire plot hinges on absence, namely, the death of its main character, Laura Palmer, which occurs before the show’s diegetic action even begins. Laura’s absence is primarily signified by the presence of her prom queen portrait photograph, which occupies not only the mantelpiece of the Palmer home but also the end credits of every episode. Played over with the melancholy Angelo Badalamenti score, the picture serves to remind us of the presence of Laura as narrative phantasm, the way that the absent/dead Cathy and Heathcliff haunt Nelly’s recollected narrative in Wuthering Heights.
Ghosts, then, are not just the creaky ghouls of Gothic castles, but instead are inextricably linked to the replicating capacities of technology and indeed narrative itself as a medium of recalling some thing or person or event, thereby disruptively evoking the past in the present, disturbing presence itself. As Derrida puts it:
Contrary to what we might believe, the experience of ghosts is not tied to a bygone historical period, like the landscape of Scottish manors, etc., but … is accentuated, accelerated by modern technologies like film, television, the telephone. These technologies inhabit, as it were, a phantom structure…When the very first perception of an image is linked to a structure of reproduction, then we are dealing with the realm of phantoms.
(Derrida 1989: 61)
In addition to photography, electricity and telephone communication are prominent mediums through which the ghostly is figured in Stranger Things. Joyce starts to hear Will calling to her through electricity—through the lamps and electric lights strung up in her home. She answers the telephone and hears his voice through the ambient rasping, and we can hear glimpses of that gooey, squelching monster sound. She literally rips the telephone out the wall trying to get back to him, causing another spatial rupture in the material world which started with the ephemeral, the sound of the phone call. Her makeshift séance codex constructed out of letter posters and the flashing bulbs of fairy lights renders literally the evocation of the dead through writing, the Derridean play of presence and absence which dissolves subjectivity in the space between speech and writing. Here Will can only communicate by flashing the lights, so that his presence is available only through the transmission of a kind of Morse code. At the end of episode two, as Joyce tries to navigate the suddenly terrifying environment of her home, seeking the source of the noise and of Will’s possible voice, the soundtrack, heard by us and by Joyce through the walls, is the Clash’s ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ – a song which ironically renders the subject’s lingering on the threshold between going and staying, presence and absence. Joyce’s discovery of the song playing on the stereo as if by magic is uncanny because the familiar song becomes wrenched from its normal experience and is here recontextualised as extremely disturbing and perhaps even tragic, the flicker and stutter of its playback following the jilted rhythms of a voice, a soul, a subject, trying to pierce through some unseen border, to transmit signals to his mother.
At one point, Joyce gets so far as to catch a glimpse of her son through the wall which becomes a glass screen, but soon he vanishes, the wall returns to being a wall that is now smashed and the daylight is beaming through, reminder of the permeability of all borders, the fragile boundaries of the home. When the estranged husband, father of Will, comes to visit, he makes attempts to patch up the physical confines of the home, but this patriarchal intrusion of order and reparation of stability does little to stabilise the spirits of the house: the invasive Creature, which howls in the wall, and Will, who calls through the lights.
What we get is a sense of Joyce’s claustrophobic mania, her absolute loneliness as she desperately tries to seek out signs of her son’s presence. Jonathan makes attempts to help her, to make her breakfast and be strong for her, but he too prefers to retire to his room and listen to his new wave melancholia, eyes transfixed on the constant whorl of the tape spools. As Joyce fashions a codex for communication, I think back to the idea of writing itself as a kind of call. In writing, the self dissolves, is irrevocably split (so far, so Lacan), but the same is true of speech:
[…] we come to apprehend a ghostly structure at work, which informs the condition of being human, and with that all forms, instances, possibilities of communication between the self and the other, the host and the guest or ghost, the living and the dead. Even if no one has said anything to me, when I begin to write, or when I start talking – to give a lecture, or in a seminar – what I call “my” words, arrive as a response to some unheard, but nonetheless persistent call […]
(Dick and Wolfreys 2015: 28).
There is, then, an uncanny disruption of subjectivity within the voice itself, a spacing of difference and deferral. Whose words am I speaking? In the experience of hearing Will’s voice, we undergo the creepy realisation of his presence penetrating the possibilities of time/space (how can you speak from the realm of the dead?) at the same time of the technological reproduction of his voice adding another layer of ‘removal’, of phantasmagoric embodiment to Will’s ‘self’ or indeed ‘soul’.
I would argue that the show’s real obsession is not with Cold War governmental conspiracy, but with transmission and networks. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on how Tom McCarthy’s novel C (2010) approaches the discourse networks of twenty-first century internet and wireless technology by representing the wireless networks of the early twentieth century’s radio communication, in doing so carving out a media archaeological approach to literature and theory that renders the always-already status of subjectivity and human communication as a form of transmission, indelibly connected to texts and technics. McCarthy’s protagonist, Serge, tunes into the radio frequently, but even as he listens to a gramophone, the unravelling distortions of his dead sister’s voice tune into his brain through a psychoanalytic panoply of incest, desire and technological anamnesis:
The cylinders and discs are still there. When he plays them now, her voice attaches itself, leech-like, to the ones recorded in them – tacitly, as though laid down in the wax and shellac underneath these voices, on a lower stratum: it flashes invisibly within these crackles, slithers through the hisses of their silence.
(McCarthy 2010: 78)
Here the material paraphernalia of the gramophone has the effect of a medium in the telekinetic sense of communing with the dead; only Serge never speaks back, he only listens. The leech-like imagery conjured here, with the slithery plurality of voices, the intrusion of external sounds (‘these crackles’) recalls the slimy imagery of Coleridge’s water-snakes and indeed the Upside-Down: these are parts of ‘the world’ of matter that cannot be elided, that flicker in the strange temporal space which technologically carves out (in its ‘archaeological’ and reproductive function) between life and death. Sophie, the dead sister, returns as material detritus, reminding us again of our enmeshment (here physical embedding) within the material world. As the ‘wax and shellac’ score ‘these voices’, Warner’s figuring of the phantasmagoria of the soul appears again: the soul is here literally materialised, but only as recollected fragments. This is an ecological point in the sense that it underscores our dependence on the matter of technics as an entry point into being, since memory is crucial for our sense of selfhood, its recollection the temporal play that brings a sense of presence—of duration and continuity, though predicated on movement and the spacing of image and sound, the material, sensory forms taken by memory. There is something in this inherently connecting the child and the technological machine. Perhaps it is because children are closely associated with futurity, and their death (living on only in memory fragments) uncannily disrupts our sense of the linear ‘order’ of things. Perhaps also because of the history of the technical media itself:
As the literary critic Laurence Rickels points out, the technical media first create these children – “create” in the sense of constituting them as modern subjects by inscribing them across their wax- and nitrate-plated surfaces, framing them within their boxed walls – then, once the children are dead, provide the mausoleums they inhabit. “Every point of contact between a body and its media extension,” he goes on to argue, “marks the site of some secret burial.
(McCarthy, Tom 2012)
Will’s friends try to reach out to him by playing with the Ham radio at school, eventually getting through to him from the Upside-Down and in the process exploding the equipment. Is this burst of flames the violent rupture of the Real, another signal that the boundaries of the symbolic and indeed metaphysical order are being ruptured? The revenge of physics against a narrative of possible mysticism? When El encounters the spooky Russian man upon one of her sensory deprivation trips, he is muttering random words which sound like a radio transmission. El herself is a transmitter. She is the explosive node in the network which opened up the gateway between the ‘real world’ and the Upside-Down. In a kind of re-imagining of Donnie Darko, the boys question their science teacher on the multiple worlds theorem, and I have tried to read up on the physics and relativity theory but my poor wee humanities brain can’t quite hold it all together. Still, the idea of multiple worlds implies being as becoming. There cannot be stable presence, singular origin of selfhood, when multiple possibilities can coexist…I think of the protagonist of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) tearing at the grotesque yellow wallpaper as if seeking for the opening, the wound in the fabric of reality, which would let out that terrible voice, the face that she sees in the multiplicities of arabesques, which perhaps are not that unlike the floral arabesques of the green, ivy-like winds of the Upside-Down’s ‘lining’, hungry as fly-eating succulents in the greenhouse of Hell…
There are times when the absent/spirit/representational world ruptures into reality. This is the terror of Lavender Town Syndrome. Pokémon Go literally makes a game out of it, by placing Pokémon to be caught within the cartographies of ‘real’ space. We are obsessed with this slippage of the real and the illusory as palimpsests, where sometimes elements of each world slip through to the next. Slender Man, which grew out of an internet myth, the placing of a ghostly trace figure within digitally-manipulated photographs, flowered as if by evolutionary monstrosity into an elaborate urban legend. Breaking the fourth wall, two 12-year-old girls from Wisconsin have been charged with first-degree attempted homicide for trying to stab their friend to death, citing the demands of Slender Man as the cause of their actions. The blur between fiction and fact stares us straight in the face of this real-world ‘tragedy’. Was Slender Man ‘real’ if the girls truly believed in him and acted on accord of his illusory voice? What are the ethical implications of this infiltration of myth narrative within our phenomenological experience of the world? Often, we see the characters seeing the Creature more than we see the Creature (for example, when Barb is attacked at the poolside), and could this relational depiction of terror be a way of drawing us in further to a shared ontological understanding of the pervasiveness of the monstrous, rather than merely a cheap horror movie trick aimed at suspense? Isn’t suspense itself a disruptive force, holding hostage the linear ideology of progress in favour of the rhythm of the ‘shock’ which loops back into the past and halts the present?
In his book Haunted Media, Jeffrey Sconce eloquently explores how television came to be figured as uncanny, as the interconnecting medium between multiple worlds. The medium itself seemed to embody a hauntological structure, with the appearance of television ‘ghosts’, whereby wispy doubles of the actual figures onscreen cast a spectral aura around their ‘real’ counterparts: ‘not so much as shadows, but as disembodied echoes seemingly from another plane or dimension’ (Sconce 124). The combination of sound and image thus proliferates the ghostly possibilities of reproduction. The BBC series’ Life on Mars and its sequel, Ashes to Ashes take this to its logical extreme by exploring television as a medium for transmission across time and space. The central characters wake up in a parallel reality where they have a similar job only they have gone back in time by several decades, forced to work on police cases which will have ramifications for the future and indeed cases whose origins are the source-code for events already experienced in the characters’ present-moment temporalities. A whole other essay is required for analysing the complex play between technology, ontological instability, nostalgia and memory here (as well as comparative police culture!); but I can briefly say that, as in McCarthy’s novel, the exploration of past technologies is often used as a way of commenting on the present.
Moreover, the figuring of technology’s ‘ether’ connects to the metaphysics of the series itself, as we gradually discover more of the mechanics of time and space within Life on Mars and even more so on Ashes to Ashes. At the start of each episode of Life on Mars comes the refrain: ‘My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident and woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever’s happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet.’ If the past seems like a ‘different planet’, then we are always-already inherently split: are our former selves and the lives we lead and have led fundamentally alien, as soon as they have happened? We gradually discover that the world inhabited by the ‘past’ characters (as opposed to the twenty-first century present) is a limbo of sorts, and this is revealed as characters start to glimpse aporetic fragments of starry ‘space’ towards the end of Ashes to Ashes. Like Joyce piercing through some dimension in her ripping holes in the wall, these characters uncover the stage-setting of the world around them. Space is figured as space in the physical sense (galaxies of matter) but also in the textual sense of rupture, pause, gaps in representation. No system is bounded or closed. There is a sense of the lost future, that which was snatched away from the dead, though lies still in its imminence. An elegiac sense of the stars, as often we perceive the dead as stars (which are themselves dead suns, and once again that idea of the flickering of light/shadow, presence/absence…). But also, the star spaces as portal/threshold, reminding us of the tangible and perhaps even elastic physical and ethereal spaces. What is it that calls us to open the door, to step forth? Upon what authority? Is it the voice within the self, irrevocably spilt as uncannily other? How does El vanish through the blackboard, along with the Creature? We are drawn to the liminal as we are drawn to the abject, precisely because there is a recognition of the enmeshment of things (Morton’s dark ecology) and the gaps in the web fascinate our sense of being as living species in relation to all other categories of being: the nonhuman, the (super)natural, the living and dead. In Life on Mars and indeed many other literary or dramatic representations of uncanny technology and its transmissions, these metaphysical hauntings are linked to the structural effects of television itself:
The introduction of electronic vision brought with it intriguing new ambiguities of space, time, and substance: the paradox of visible, seemingly material worlds trapped in a box in the living room and yet conjured out of nothing more than electricity and air. […] Unnervingly immediate and decidedly more tangible, the “electronic elsewhere” generated by television was thus more palpable and yet every bit as phantasmic the occult empires of previous media.’
(Jeffrey Sconce 2000: 126)
What is the effect of watching television in the perpetual present enabled by the internet? The browse-all, constantly-refreshed interface of Netflix? There is an added layer of immediacy which renders the nostalgic 1980s setting of shows like Ashes to Ashes (which isn’t on Netflix by the way, last time I checked) and Stranger Things even stranger, like we are reaching through a portal upon our return to their ontologically-distorted worlds. The representation of now-disused technologies as uncanny, their transmissions disturbing and problematic, prompts reflection on our contemporary digital condition. Elizabeth Bridges sums this up perfectly:
Stranger Things gets the fact that silence feels uncanny in 2016, that a lack of noise and flashing screens makes people anxious now, that it feels…. off, eerily desolate. The jolt of a ringing phone amidst a sea of silence seems jarring for us in a way that it would not have felt in 1983. Oddly normal moments in this series make us jump out of our skin.
Our present condition, the always-on, archiving-on-the-fly status of digital and portable media, renders the world of constantly disrupted communication even more strange. There is another level of disconnection, a rupture in the present, the shock of a telephone ringing. When was the last time your house phone went off when you were at home alone? The human voice recorded seems strangely anachronistic now, a product of lost time; I can’t recall the last time I made a voicemail message, or even listened to one. There’s something about the recorded voice, floating out there in the ether…the sound of the answer machine, the creepy litany, please hang up and try again, in crisply forgotten Queen’s English…
There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated.
(Kristeva 1982: 1)
Perhaps it is not the conspiracy theories or the paranoid Cold War plots or the violence that frighten us. Perhaps it is the mediums of transmission themselves, carrying wave upon wave of voices, disembodied, from different times and dimensions, bearing the abject realities which render the folds in the fabric of our being, the slippages between past/future, self/other, subject/object and life and death itself…Perhaps all technological recordings mark a death of sorts, a vital split between the transmitting subject and the transmitted object. That is the technological uncanny, and its violation of foreground and background is what draws us back into the enmeshment of a dark ecological awareness, the sense of the importance of things—the understanding that we too, as humans, are things.
Barthes, Roland, 1980. Camera Lucida (Hill and Wang).