I always have this sensation, descending the steps at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station, of narratives colliding. It’s a kind of acute deja vu, where several selves are pelting it down for the last train, or gliding idly at the end point of an evening, not quite ready for the journey home. The version that is me glows inwardly translucent, lets in the early morning light, as though she might photosynthesise. I remember this Roddy Woomble song, from his first album, the one that was sorrow, and was Scotland, through and through as a bowl of salted porridge, of sickly sugared Irn Bru. ‘Waverley Steps’, with its opening line, ‘If there’s no geography / in the things that we say’. Every word, I realise, is a situation. Alighting, departing; deferring or arriving. It’s 08:28 and I’m sitting at Waverley Station, having made my way down its steps, hugging my bag while a stranger beside me eats slices of apple from a plastic packet. I’ve just read Derek Jarman’s journal, the bit about regretting how easily we can now get any fruit we want at any time of year. He laments that soon enough we’ll be able to pick up bundles of daffodils in time for Christmas. The apples this girl eats smell of plastic, of fake perfume, not fruit. I’m about to board a train that will take me, eventually, to Thurso and then on via ferry to Orkney. I wonder if they will have apples on Orkney; it’s rumoured that they don’t have trees. Can we eat without regard to the seasons on islands also?
I needn’t have worried. Kirkwall has massive supermarkets. I check my own assumptions upon arrival, expecting inflated prices and corner shops. I anticipated the sort of wind that would buffet me sideways, but the air is fairly calm. I swill a half pint of Tennents on the ferry, watching the sun go down, golden-orange, the Old Man of Hoy looming close enough to get the fear from. Something about ancient structures of stone always gives me vertigo. Trying to reconcile all those temporal scales at once, finding yourself plunged. A panpsychic sense that the spirit of the past ekes itself eerily from pores of rock. Can be read in a primitive braille of marks and striations. We pick our way through Kirkwall to the SYHA hostel, along winding residential streets. I comment on how quiet it is, how deliciously dark. We don’t see stars but the dark is real, lovely and thick. Black treacle skies keep silent the island. I am so intent in the night I feel dragged from reality.
Waking on my first day, I write in my notebook: ‘the sky is a greyish egg-white background gleaming remnant dawn’. In the lounge of the hostel, someone has the telly on—news from Westminster. Later, I’m in a bookshop in Stromness, browsing books about the island while the Radio 2 Drivetime traffic reports of holdups on motorways circling London. Standing there, clasping Ebban an Flowan, I feel between two times. A slim poetry volume by Alec Finlay and Laura Watt, with photographs by Alastair Peebles, Ebban an Flowan is Orkney’s present and future: a primer on marine renewable energy. Poetry as cultural sculpting, as speculation and continuity: ‘there’s no need to worry / that any wave is wasted / when there’s all this motion’. New ideas of sustainability and energy churn on the page before me, while thousands down south are burning up oil on the London orbital.
When we take a bus tour of Mainland Orkney’s energy sources, we play a game of spotting every electric car we see. Someone on the bus, an academic who lives here, knows exactly how many electric cars there are on the island. There’s a solidarity in that, a pride in folk knowledge, the act of knowing. On the train up to Thurso, I started a game of infrastructure bingo, murmuring the word whenever I spotted a pylon, a station or a turbine. Say it, just say it: infrastructure. Something satisfying in its soft susurration, infra as potential to be both within and between, a shifting. Osmosis, almost. The kinesis of moving your lips for fra, feeling a brief schism between skin and teeth. A generative word. Say it enough times and you will summon something: an ambient awareness of those gatherings around you, sources of fuel, object, energy.
The supermarkets in Kirkwall seem like misplaced temples. This was me idealising the remoteness of islands, wanting to live by an insular, scarcer logic. The more we go north, the more scarcity we crave—a sort of existential whittling. Before visiting, I envisioned the temperature dropping by halves. On the first night, warm in my bed, I write: ‘To feel on the brink of something, then ever equi-distant’. The WiFi picks up messages from home. Scrolling the algorithmic rolls of Instagram, I feel extra-simultaneous with these random images, snapshots of happenings around the world. Being on an island intensifies my present. In Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (2016), a memoir of recovery and return on Orkney, Liptrot writes of ‘waiting for the next gale to receive my text messages’. On the whims of billowing signal, we wait for news of the south to arrive. Maybe I was an island and I wanted my life elsewhere to vanish, disappear in a wall of wind; I wanted to exist just here, in a hullabaloo of nowness.
I say an island, but of course Orkney is more an archipelago. And I’m on the Mainland, home to the burghs of Stromness and Kirkwall. Here for the ASLE-UKI conference, there wasn’t time to visit the harbour at Scapa, or the neolithic village of Skara Brae or the stone circle Ring of Brodgar. I spend most of my time in the town hall opposite Kirkwall’s impressive, sandstone cathedral, aglow by night with fairy lights strung in surrounding trees. Yes, trees. Orkney has trees. They are often gnarled-looking and strange, stripped by wind or held up inside by steel plinths. Anthropocene arboreal hybrids. But still they are trees. Using my plant identification app, I find hazels and birches. Autumn is traceable in the swirls of thin leaves that skirt the pavement, tousling our sense of a general transition.
At one point in the trip, we visit the Burgar Hill Energy Project in Evie, alighting from the bus to stand underneath several massive turbines. The sound is wonderful, a deep churning whirr that feels like the air pressed charge on repeat. Under the chug chug chug of those great white wings we gathered, listened, moved and dispersed. I watch as our tight knit group begins to fragment; we need time apart to absorb this properly, little cells bouncing off and away from each other, quietly charged, loosening dots of pollen. Some of us finding the outer reach of the hill, looking for a view or panorama, leaning back to snap a photograph. I film the shadows windmilling dark the rough green grass. Capturing the turbines themselves seemed almost obscene. I don’t know why I was making them into idols, afraid to reduce them to pictures. It was easier to glimpse them in pieces, a flash of white, synecdoche. My friend Katy and I agreed the best photos were the ones out of focus, a bird-like blur against the blue.
Places I have been hit by wind:
The cloisters at the University of Glasgow, a wind-tunnel roar to blast out your thoughts post-exam.
The hills of Aviemore, my first and last time attempt to ski.
Ayrshire beaches in winter, icy particles of hail cast into my eyes and ears.
The last day of the Wickerman Festival, wrestling with tents that needed drying and folding, the wind blasting against my cliff of a hangover.
On the deck of a ferry, mascara stinging the black black veil of my lashes.
I am an air sign, Gemini, and there is something about losing your breath to elemental forces. I think I once finished a poem with a phrase like, ‘lashing the planetary way of all this’. We used to stand in the playground at school, brandishing our jackets like polyester wings, letting the wind move us forward, staggering in our lightweight bodies, our childish intuition of the way of the world. The pleasure in surrendering. Making of your body a buffeted object. Returning to Glasgow, I soon find myself hit with a cold, preemptive fresher’s flu; a weight on my chest, a diaphragm lag. A sense of my body heaving against itself.
On Orkney, I can smell the salt from the sea. Earlier in the summer, I was struck with wisdom tooth pain, the kind that requires salt-water rinses every half hour, not to mention agonised gargles of whisky. Wasting my precious bottle of Talisker. Amid the haze of those painkiller days, I felt closer to an elemental heat. Metonymically, I was inhaling islands. The taste of self-preservation, of necessary self-sustenance, is never as strong and unwanted as when you want a part of yourself to be wrenched out of you. Pulling teeth is an easy metaphor for lost love, or other forms of psychic distress. Breaking apart, making of the self an archipelago. There’s that song by The National, ‘I Should Live in Salt’, which always sticks in my head in granular form, occasional line. Refrain of refrains, ‘I should live in salt for leaving you behind’. I never knew whether Matt Berninger was singing about preservation or pain, but I saw myself lying down in a kelp bed, child-size, letting the waves lap over my body, salt suffusing the pores of my skin. Begin again, softer.
The rain here is more a tangential shimmer. I wake up to it, dreaming that my window was broken and no-one would bother to fix it. Fear of boundaries loosened, the outside in. The future as a sheet of glass, a shelf you could place your self on and drink. Salt water rinse and heat of whisky. We leave the hostel early and wander beyond the Kirkwall harbour, to the hydrogen plant bordering an industrial estate. Katy and I discussed our fondness for industrial estates as homely reminders. She would go running, and wherever she ran the industrial zones were inevitable. As if in any city you would reach that realm, it called you in with its corrugated fronts and abrasive loneliness. My love for the canal, biking up through Maryhill where the warehouses watch serenely over you, loom behind trees, barely a machinic rumble disturbing the birds. We traced the edge of a man-made waterfront, a crescent curving lip of land. The way it curled was elliptical, it didn’t finish its inward whorls of land upon water, but still I thought of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, or the cinnamon buns I bought from the Kirkwall Tesco. Finding a bench, we ate bananas for breakfast, looking out at the grey-blue sea, our fingers purpling with the cold. I like to think of the banana, Katy said, as a solid unit of energy. Here we were, already recalibrating reality by the logic of pulse and burn and calories. Feeling infra.
I love the words ‘gigawatt’, ‘kilocal’, ‘megabyte’. I like the easeful parcelling up of numbers and storage and energy. I am unable to grasp these scales and sizes visually or temporally, but it helps to find them in words.
We learn about differences between national and local grids, how wind is surveyed, how wave power gets extracted from the littoral zone. My mind oscillates between a sonar attentiveness and deep exhaustion, the restfulness gleaned from island air and waking with sunrise. I slip in and out of sleep on the bus as it swerves round corners. I am pleasantly jostled with knowledge and time, the precious duration of being here. Here. Here, exactly. This intuition vanishes when I try to write it. A note: ‘I know what the gaps between trees must feel like’. Listening to experienced academics, scientists and creatives talk about planes, axes, loops and striations, ages of ages, I find myself in the auratic realm of save as…, dwelling in the constant recording of motion, depth and time. Taking pictures, scribbling words, drawing maps and lines and symbols. We talk of Orkney as a model for the world. Everything has its overlay, the way we parse our experience with apps and books and wireless signals. Someone takes a phone call, posts a tweet. I scroll through the conference hashtag with the hostel WiFi, tracing the day through these crumbs of perspective, memories silently losing their fizz in the night.
I grew up by the sea, in Maybole, Ayrshire (with its ‘blue moors’, as W. S. Graham puts it), but a lot of my thalassic time was spent virtually. I loved video games like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, where the narrative happened between islands, where much of the gameplay involved conducting voyages across the sea. The interstitial thrill of a journey. There were whirlpools, tornados, monsters rising from the deep. On Maidens Harbour, I could hardly reach that volcanic plug of sparkling granite, the Ailsa Craig, or swim out to Arran; virtually, however, I could traverse whatever limits the game had designed. The freedom in that, of exploring a world already set and scaled. Movement produced within constraint. In real life, mostly our bodies and minds constrain. What excites me now is what I took for granted then: the salt spray stinging my lips, the wind in my hair, the glint of shells bleached clean by the sea; a beautiful cascade of cliches that make us.
‘To wake up and really see things…passages from a neverland.’ Back in Glasgow, fallen upon familiar nocturnal rhythms, I find myself craving the diurnal synchrony I achieved in Orkney. Sleepy afternoons so rich in milky light. The vibrational warmth of the ferry’s engine, activating that primitive desire for oil, the petrol smell at stations as my mother filled up the car for journeys to England. My life has often been defined by these journeys between north and south, born in Hertfordshire but finding an early home in Ayrshire. Swapping that heart for air, and all porosity of potential identity. Laura Watt talked of her work as an ethnographer, interviewing the people of Orkney to find out more about their experiences of energy, the way infrastructural change impacts their daily lives, their health, their business. Within that collaboration, she tells us, there’s also a sense of responsibility: stories carry a personal heft, something that begs immunity from diffusion. Some stories, she says, you can’t tell again. The ethics of care there. I wonder if this goes the same for stone, the stories impregnated within the neolithic rocks we glimpse on Orkney. Narrative formations lost to history’s indifferent abstraction, badly parsed by present-day humans along striated lines, evidence of fissure and collision. All that plastic the ocean spits back, co-evolutions of geology and humans. Plastiglomerates along the shore. But Orkney feels pure and relatively litter-free, so goes my illusions, my sense of island exceptionalism. I become more aware of the waste elsewhere. The only person I see smoking, in my whole time there, is a man who speeds his car up Kirkwall’s high street. Smoke and oil, the infinite partners; extraction and exhaustion, the smouldering of all our physical addictions. Nicotine gives the body a rhythm, a spike and recede and a need.
We learn of a Microsoft server sunk under the sea, adjacent to Orkney. There’s enough room in those computers, according to a BBC report, to store ‘five million movies’. And so the cloud contains these myriad worlds, whirring warm within the deep. Minerals, wires and plastics crystallise the code of all our text and images. Apparently the cooler environment will reduce corrosion. I remember the shipyard on Cumbrae, another island; its charnel ground of rusted boats and iron shavings. The lurid brilliance of all that orange, temporal evidence of the sea’s harsh moods, the constant prickle of salt in the air. The way it seems like fire against all those cool flakes of cerulean paint. I wrote a blog post about that shipyard once, so eager to mythologise: ‘Billowing storms, sails failing amidst inevitable shipwreck. It’s difficult to imagine such disasters on this pretty island, yet there is an uncanny sense to this space, as if we have entered a secret porthole, discovered what was supposed to be invisible to outsiders…The quietness recalls an abandoned film set’. Does tourism lend an eerie voyeurism to the beauty we see, conscious of these objects, landscapes and events being photographed many times over? Perhaps the mirage of other islands and hills glimpsed over the blue or green is more the aura of our human conceptions, archival obsession—the camera lights left buzzing in the air, traced for eternity.
I come to Orkney during a time of transition, treading water before a great turn in my life. Time at sea as existential suspension. There have been some departures, severings, personal hurts, burgeoning projects and new beginnings. A great tiredness and fog over everything. ‘Cells of fuel are fuelling cells’. At the conference, my brain teems with this rich, mechanical vocabulary: copper wires and plates and words for wattage, transmission, the reveries of innovation. There is a turning over, leaf after leaf; I fill up my book with radials, coal and rain. My mind attains a different altitude. I think mostly about the impressions that are happening around me: the constant flow of conversation, brought in again as we move between halls and rooms, bars and timelines in our little human estuaries. We visit Stromness Academy, to see Luke Jerram’s ‘Museum of the Moon’: a seven-metre rendition of lunar sublimity, something to stand beneath, touch, lie under. I learn the word for the moon’s basaltic seas is ‘Maria’, feel eerily sparked, spread identity into ether. We listen, quietly, in the ambient dark, taking in composer Dan Jones’ textures of sound, the Moonlight Sonata, the cresting noise of radio reports—landings from a future-past, a lost utopia.
On Friday night, Katy and I catch the overnight ferry back to Aberdeen. Sleep on my cinema seat has a special intensity, a falling through dreams so vivid they smudge themselves on every minute caught between reading and waking. Jarman’s gardens enrich my fantasy impressions, and I slip inside the micro print, the inky paragraphs. I dream of oil and violets and sharp desire, a pearlescent ghost ship glimmer on a raging, Romantic sea. Tides unrealised, tides I can’t parse with my eyes alone; felt more as a rhythm within me. Later, on land I will miss that oceanic shudder, the sense of being wavy. I have found myself like this before, chemically enhanced or drunk, starving and stumbling towards bathrooms. We share drinking tales which remind me of drowning, finding in the midst of the city a seaborne viscosity of matter and memory, of being swept elsewhere. Why is it I always reach for marinal metaphor? Flood doors slam hard the worlds behind me. There are points in the night I wake up and check my phone for the time, noticing the lack of GPRS, or otherwise signal. I feel totally unmoored in those moments, deliciously given to the motioning whims of the ferry. Here I am, a passenger without place. We could be anywhere, on anyone’s ocean. I realise my privilege at being able to extract pleasure from this geographic anonymity, with a home to return to, a mainland I know as my own. The ocean is hardly this windswept playground for everyone; many lose their lives to its terminal desert. Sorrow for people lost to water. Denise Riley’s call to ‘look unrelentingly’. I sip from my bottle, water gleaned from a tap in Orkney. I am never sure whether to say on or in. How to differentiate between immersion and inhabitation, what to make of the whirlwinds of temporary dwelling. How to transcend the selfish and surface bonds of a tourist.
The little islands of our minds reach out across waves, draw closer. I dream of messages sent from people I love, borne along subaquatic signals, a Drexciya techno pulsing in my chest, down through my headphones. My CNS becomes a set of currents, blips and tidal replies. A week later, deliriously tired, I nearly faint at a Wooden Shijps gig, watching the psychedelic visuals resolve into luminous, oceanic fractals. It’s like I’m being born again and every sensation hurts, those solos carried off into endless nowhere.
Time passes and signal returns. We wake at six and head out on deck to watch the sunrise, laughing at the circling gulls and the funny way they tuck in their legs when they fly. These seabirds have a sort of grace, unlike the squawking, chip-loving gulls of our hometowns, stalking the streets at takeaway hour. The light is peachy, a frail soft acid, impressionist pools reflecting electric lamps. I think of the last lecture of the conference, Rachel Dowse’s meditations on starlings as trash animals, possessing a biological criticality as creatures in transition. I make of the sky a potential plain of ornithomancy, looking for significant murmurations, evidence of darkness to come. But there is nothing but gulls, a whey-coloured streak of connected cumulus. The wake rolls out behind us, a luxurious carpet of rippling blue. We are going south again. The gulls recede. Aberdeen harbour is a cornucopia of infrastructure, coloured crates against the grey, with gothic architecture looming through morning mist behind.
Later I alight at the Waverley Steps again. Roddy in my ear, ‘Let the light be mined away’. My time on the island has been one of excavation and skimming, doing the work of an academic, a tourist, a maker at once. Dredging up materials of my own unconscious, or dragging them back again, making of them something new. Cold, shiny knowledge. The lay of the heath and bend of bay. I did not get into the sea to swim, I didn’t feel the cold North rattle right through my bones. But my nails turned blue in the freezing wind, my cheeks felt the mist of ocean rain. I looked at maps and counted the boats. I thought about what it must be like to cut out a life for yourself on these islands.
Home now, I find myself watching badly-dubbed documentaries about Orkney on YouTube, less for the picturesque imagery than the sensation of someone saying those names: Papay, Scapa, Eday, Hoy. Strong names cut from rock, so comforting to say. I read over the poems of Scotland’s contemporary island poets, Jen Hadfield for Shetland, Niall Campbell for Uist. Look for the textures of the weather in each one, the way they catch a certain kind of light; I read with a sort of aggression for the code, the manifest ‘truth’ of experience— it’s like cracking open a geode. I don’t normally read like this, leaving my modernist cynicism behind. I long for outposts among rough wind and mind, Campbell’s ‘The House by the Sea, Eriskay’: ‘This is where the drowned climb to land’. I read about J. H. Prynne’s huts, learn the word ‘sheiling’. Remember the bothies we explored on long walks as children. There’s a need for enchantment when city life churns a turbulent drone, so I curl into these poems, looking for clues: ‘In a fairy-tale, / a boy squeezed a pebble / until it ran milk’ (Hadfield, ‘The Porcelain Cliff’). Poetry becomes a way of building a shelter. I’m struck with the sense of these poets making: time and matter are kneaded with weight and precision, handled by pauses, the shape-making slump of syntax. Energy and erosion, elemental communion. Motion and rest. My fragile body becomes a fleshwork of blood and bone and artery, hardly an island, inclined to allergy and outline, a certain porosity; an island only in vain tributary. I write it in stanzas, excoriate my thoughts, reach for someone in the night. I think about how we provide islands for others, ports in a storm. Let others into our lives for temporary warmth, then cast ourselves out to sea, sometimes sinking.
Why live on an island? In Orkney we were asked to think with the sea, not against it. To see it not as a barrier but an agential force, teeming with potential energy. Our worries about lifestyle and problematic infrastructure, transport and connection were playfully derided by a local scholar as ‘tarmac thinking’. Back in a city, I’ve carried this with me. The first time I read The Outrun was in the depths of winter, 2016, hiding in some empty, elevated garrett of the university library. I’d made my own form of remoteness; that winter, more than a stairwell blocked me off from the rest of existence. Now, I read in quick passages, lively bursts; I cycle along the Clyde at night and wonder the ways in which this connects us, its cola-dark waters swirling northwards, dragged by eventual tides. I circle back to a concept introduced by anthropologists at Rice University, Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, ‘sister cities of the Anthropocene’: the idea that our cities are linked, globally, by direct or vicarious physical flows of waste, energy and ecological disaster. This hydrological globalisation envisions the cities of the world as a sort of archipelago, no metropolis safe from the feedback loops of environmental causality, our agency as both individuals and collectives. On Orkney, we were taught to think community as process, rather than something given. I guess sometimes you have to descend from your intellectual tower to find it: see yourself in symbiosis; your body, as a tumbled, possible object: ‘All arriving seas drift me, at each heartbreak, home’ (Graham, ‘Three Poems of Drowning’).
To the best of my memory, I have only ever been on a sailing boat once. Or, I have only been happily in control of a sailing boat once (there was a time we had to try windsurfing in primary school, a time whose details have, thankfully, long been repressed). It was 2005, I was twelve years old, and had won a competition through the local youth club to go on a sailing trip to Oban. I don’t remember anything about what I must’ve learned regarding sailing, but I do recall a beautiful suite of seafaring terms: a special vocabulary which transformed previously mundane structural features into curious artefacts of mysterious potential: cleat, keel, stem, rudder, transform, tiller, clew, boom, shroud, telltale, jib, winch, deck and spreader. The man in charge was a hardened fisherman type; I don’t recall his name, but we called him the skipper. He was dismayed to learn I was a vegetarian, having packed little in the way of vegetables for our journey. I was happy to live off Ovaltine, jam rolls and digestives for the following days. It was such an odd combination of children—were we still children?—on that trip. No popular kids, but a few of the scarier misbehaviours (probably not okay to still call them neds), the freaks and geeks—then me, wherever I fit in. ‘Goth’, which in the case of my school was generally singular. Somehow, we all bonded rather than fought in the tiny space of that boat.
One boy, who would always be in fights, bullying and hunking his weight around, was so sweet to me. He saw I had eaten barely anything and gave me a whole bar of Cadbury Mint Chocolate, insisting I had all of it. It was such a kind gesture that I remember it still. Everyone was different at sea: softer, more honest. We were willing to admit our social vulnerabilities; there was no-one, no context, to perform for. A boy I’ll call L. opened up to me about his love for 2Pac, and when Coldplay came on the skipper’s stereo (it was their first truly mehhhh album, X&Y), we shared a little rant about how cheesy it was. We ate fruit out of tins, pulled scarves over our faces on deck and watched the coloured houses of Tobermory loom closer. The skipper let us all have a go at the tiller; he told us stories from previous trips, about how the weather had turned nasty and they’d had to pull themselves through miniature hurricanes. I found myself craving the wild mad weather, even as I was shivering in some inadequate waterproof jacket (I have a history of coming ill prepared to such outings). The skipper and I sort of oddly bonded, since I was usually the first one up in the group. He’d put the kettle on and we’d go out on deck to watch the sky. He’d point out things to look for in the cloud patterns, the colours that bloomed on the horizon. It’s this kind of practical knowledge that I thirst for. Chefs talking to me about how to sharpen knives, bake brownies; motorcyclists betraying the secrets to keeping your speed; engineers talking about formulas and team rivalries and how to build a bike wheel. I’m completely incapable of almost anything practical, so it’s always a magic alchemy to me. When people ask what I want to be when I grow up, I say shepherdess, even though I have little idea of what that entails, beyond reading the excellent The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks and occasionally listening to The Archers.I think I’d just be content to wander around hills.
Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight…
I awake to steady rainfall, first day of November. I have been thinking a lot about that sailing trip recently, mostly because I’ve been doing writing workshops in Greenock, and the nature of the place as a harbour town has everyone often turning back to boats and fishing topics. I talk to a chef at work about fishing, not because I’m all that interested in fish but because there’s something about its psychology that reminds me of times gone by. Once, I took myself out to Cardross on the train, following the road up to Ardmore to sit on the point which was a good spot for anglers. It was so quiet and still, the beaches strewn with lumps of quartz. I sat there for an hour or so, listening to the steady lap of the estuary, then slowly made my way home, tearing my skin on all the brambles. It had the feeling of a secret, overgrown place. A little out the way, a nest you could curl into: an almost island. I recall those tiny islands on the Swan Pond at Culzean Castle, where we used to leap across to. As a kid, I’d hide among the bamboos and rushes and feel entirely in my own little world. The pathways and grasses were lit with secret creatures, this 12th World I’d created—it was over a decade prior to Pokemon Go, but here I was in my augmented reality. I’d sit up on the top of the stairs reading for as late as possible, imagining that I was on top of a waterfall, and all before me was water cascading instead of carpet. I’d lie upside down and the ceiling became the first planes of a new universe. I’d wake up early and write it all down; but those pages are lost to whatever antique sale of the past stole my youth.
Now I am adult, less governed by diurnal rhythms. I find myself lost in the long bleed of night into day, up far too late in the bewildering recesses of the ocean online, the oceanic internet. Far corners where articles smudge their HEX numbers in true form down the page and I am rubbing my eyes to see beyond light. Time, perhaps, to rehash that old metaphor, surfing the web. Occasionally, some page would bring me crashing back down in the shallows; I’d wake up, ten minutes later, groggy on my keyboard. Press the refresh key. Instagram has me crossing continents at bewildering speed, lost in Moroccan markets, Mauritian beaches and Mexico City. In the depths of some nightclub then the heights of a Highland peak. So many fucking faces. Closeups of homemade cakes, delicious whisky. Memories. Oscillations I can hardly breathe in, watching my thumb make its onward scroll without my direction. The rhythms become flow, become repetition. I need an anchor. It’s been hours and hours and maybe I’m hungry.
On the boat, whose name I have sadly lost, we slept by gender in two separate cabin rooms. They were tiny, low-ceilinged, and we were just a handful of slugs pressed tight in our sleeping bags. It was better than a sleepover, because there was no pressure to stay up all night and we were all too exhausted from the sea air to talk much. I’d close my eyes and feel the steady rock of the boat’s hull as it bobbed on the water. There was a deep throb of something hitting against the walls outside, maybe a buoy or rope; it felt like a heartbeat. Sleeping in many strange places, the floors of friends’ flats and houses, in tents and on trains, I try to revisit that snug tight room where sleep was difficult to separate from consciousness itself. It was all of a darkness. Something Gaston Bachelard says in The Poetics of Space: ‘We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection. Something closed must retain our memories, while leaving them their original value as images.’ There was no mirror in that boat, so all I remember are smells and objects. No sign of my own pale and windswept face. Everything we ate was an old-fashioned brand; it made me think of rationing and traditional values. I wasn’t quite sure what that even meant.
I need an anchor. A place to dock in.
Governed by some primordial instinct, I go to make my dinner around the same time most nights—which happens to be one in the morning. The shipping forecast used to be the last thing on the radio, before a sea of white noise till dawn. When cutting veg, my fingers weak from another long day, I switch on the radio and there are the familiar intonations. I listen as I would a poem or a shopping list, a beautiful litany of place names, nouns, directives. I have no idea what any of it signifies. It’s been a double shift, perhaps, or an extreme stint in the library, a walk across the city. My mind is full of words and sounds, so many conversations. The debris of the day threatens to spill out as a siren’s cry, and how easily I could slump against the kitchen cupboards, wilt upon the floor. Make myself nothing but driftwood, no good turning till morning. But instead I chop veg, listen to the shipping forecast. It’s difficult to think you deserve food, even when your body’s burning for it and you haven’t eaten for hours. But there are so many other things to read or do! You need an anchor, a reason.
The general synopsis at midnight.
Many of my childhood lost afternoons, bleeding to evenings, were spent playing The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker on a GameCube I shared with my brother—avoiding the narrative quests and dungeons in favour of epic ventures across that cobalt ocean. What I wanted was that rousing sense of the wind’s spirit, the freedom to glide and find new islands. Whirlpools, tornados and Chtlulu-like creatures hurled me out to stranger lands. It was all so beautifully rendered, an expansive thalassic field of possibility; with each route I was fashioning some lovelorn story for my lonely hero. The ocean has always represented for me some point of erasure where reality dissolves into imagination. I think maybe it’s this perceptive meshing that we need to attune to in order to make sense of the vast scale effects of the Anthropocene. How else to grasp those resonant shockwaves of consequence, whose manifestations often transcend our human grasp of time and space?
Headache, Viking, southwesterly veering. The same refrain, moderate or good. When occasionally poor at times, do I picture the sailors with rain lashing their faces, rising through mist towards mainland? Is that even where they want to head? Rain at times, smooth or slight, variable 3 or 4. The dwelling conditionals; always between, never quite certain. The weather being this immense, elusive flux you can guess at, the way paint might guess at true colour. Cyclonic 4 or 5. In Fitzroy are there storms circling around the bay? Very few of these places could I point to on a map. I like the ambiguity, the fact of their being out there, starring the banks and shores and isles of Britain and beyond: Shannon, Fastnet, the Irish Sea. There’s a sense of being ancient, from Fair Isle to Faeroes.
I went to a talk last week for Sonica Fest where a girl from Fair Isle talked about climate change, how her home island would probably one day be swallowed by the sea. I can’t help picturing a Cocteau Twins song when she says it. She dropped handmade bronze chains in different oceans so you could see the divergent levels of oxidation, relative to saline content. It was beautiful, this abstract material rendering of elemental time. The world rusts differently; we are all objects, exposed to variant weathers. Her name was Vivian Ross-Smith and she talked about ‘islandness’, a project which connects contemporary art practise with locality and tradition. The term for me also conjured some sense of the world as all these archipelagos, whose land mass is slowly being ravaged by warming waters. The pollutants we put in. Islandness betrays our vulnerability, the way we were as 12-year-olds at the mercy of the tides, the weather and our gruff skipper. I had little conception of what climate change was, but even then I didn’t set a division between humankind and nature.
Back on the boat, I traced my own moods in the swirls of those mysterious currents, dipping my fingers in the freezing North Sea. Who are we before puberty, pure in our childish palette of pastel moods? When I think about how that sea spreads out to become the Atlantic, so vast and impossibly deep, I grow a bit nauseous. Maybe that’s the sublime; an endless concatenation of seasickness, feeling your own weakness and smallness in the face of great space, matter, disaster. How easy you too could become debris.
Increasingly, that waltzing Cocteau Twins song feels more like an elegy, haunted by the shrill of soprano, those shoegaze guitars resounding like notes through a cataract. A line from Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’* I always remember, ‘The sounding cataract / Haunted me like a passion’. Interplay between feeling and form, sound and vision. The ocean warming, the beat steady and mesmerising. Are we sleepwalking into the Anthropocene, over and over again, a lurid repetition compulsion? Why we keep burning up fossil fuels, emitting our plumes of carbon, senseless in the face of a terrible sensorium? I crave solid objects that show up the archives of history, those plastiglomerates of Frankenstein geology, the warped materials of the Earth’s slow and drawn-out hurting. Liz Fraser’s operatic howls are maybe the mourning of the land itself, begging to be swallowed by the sea. A saving? If originally we came from water, hatched out of amniotic sacks or evolved from subaquatic origins, then maybe we return to its oceanic expanse, its blue screen of death. When I’m anxious and needing to write furiously, write against the tides of exhaustion or time, I listen to Drexciya—Detroit-based techno that harks back to Plato’s mythology of Atlantis, via Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic. There’s this crazed evocation of diaspora, drowning, a mysterious race of merpeople. What evolves below water, what is spawning in the recesses of subculture; what resists the mainstream, the violent currents of everyday life. This subterranean city is a ‘sonic third space’. I can’t help but think of my own other planet, that 12th World separate yet attached to daily reality; somewhere distant but still impossibly intimate. That resonant intensity that drives you from sleep and into midnight discos of the mind, all pulsation of lights, wonder, horror.
There’s a sense that sound itself can be physically embracing. This is maybe how it crosses over into sonic third space, where embedded mythologies flourish in resonant affect. Where sound becomes tangible, making vibrational inscriptions of code upon the body like transient hieroglyphs of an assemblage’s trellising energy. In Tom McCarthy’s novel C (2010), the protagonist Serge is obsessed with hacking the radio to tune into the ether. Alongside the obvious supernatural connotations, there’s a more pressing suggestion that Serge is able to make his entire being become channel for sound. He lays on a ship as I once lay on a boat, listening to the warm stirs, the conversational blips and signals of objects:
The engine noise sounds in his chest. It seems to carry conversations from other parts of the vessel: the deck, perhaps, or possibly the dining room, or maybe even those of its past passengers, still humming through its metal girders, resonating in the enclosed air of its corridors and cabins, shafts and vents. Their cadences rise and fall with the ship’s motion, with such synchronicity that it seems to Serge that he’s rising and falling not so much above the ocean per sea as on and into them: the cadences themselves, their peaks and troughs…
McCarthy’s lyrical clauses accumulate this notion of sound as spreading, seeping into words and orifices, surfaces. Presences, absence. A lilting simultaneity between the movements and pulses of objects. Sound becomes material; is spatialised as cadence, lapping the edge of Serge’s senses with lapidary, enticing effect—always tinged, perhaps, with a lisping hint of danger. The sounds, after all, also evoke the dead. There’s a radio drama by Jonathan Mitchell, where the protagonist has developed a device which allows you to extract sound from wood. There’s the idea that wooden surfaces absorb sounds from their surroundings, and the time and quality of storage depends on the type of wood. It’s a brilliant sci-fi exploration of what would happen ethically if we could extract auditory archives from material surroundings—the problems and possibilities of surveillance, anamnesis and so on. Consequences for human and nonhuman identity, the boundaries between life and death, silence and noise.
Do the walls hear everything? I think of rotting driftwood, how porous and light it is. How its every indent, line and scar marks some story of the tides, the stones and the sea. Robinson Crusoe, chipping the days away as notches on wood. I think of the hull of that boat, perhaps coated in plastic, sticky with flies and algae.
On the last day of our sailing trip, we were sitting round the table of the cabin, docked in Oban harbour, reading the papers and having a cup of tea. Our youth club leader got a text from a friend back home. She was informing us of the London 7/7 bombings. This was a time prior to having internet on our phones. We weren’t so wirelessly in tune with everything everywhere always. But that little signal, a couple words blipped through the ether, brought the sudden weight of the world crashing back down upon our maritime eden. I had family in London who escaped the attack by the skin of their teeth, a fortuitous decision to take that day a different route. How everything was at once the dread of hypotheticals. I did not understand the vast arterial networks of terror that governed the planet; these things happened in flashbulb moments, their ripple effects making what teachers called history. Somehow it didn’t seem real. Bombs went off all the time on tv; I grew up with the War in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those televised wars were the ambient backdrop to everything on the news. Later, my friends would wile away their teens shooting each other on Call of Duty. It was all logistics, statistics, the spectacle of bodies and explosions. Nobody explained it. We were distracted by MSN Messenger, then those boys with their controllers tuning in and out of conversation, signing online then drifting away into present-absence. X-Box (Live). Signifier: busy. It was good to be away from the telly in the relative quiet of the boat, startled instead by foghorns and seagulls. But even then, we remained connected.
The Shipping Forecast has been issued, uninterrupted, since 1867. Its collation of meteorological data provides a map of sorts, a talismanic chart of patterns and movements, currents, pressures, temperatures—something that helps millions of sailors out at sea. I look at such visual charts and truly it boggles me. I prefer grasping such data as sound, delivered in the hypnotic lilt of that voice: its clear diction and poetic pace, calling me home. I think of the west coast, the bluish slate-grey of the sea. Becoming variable, then becoming southerly, rain or showers, moderate or good. Always between things’ becoming, becoming. There’s the pitch-black womb of a cabin again, the childlike promise of dreams and sleep, a genuine rest I’ve forgotten entirely. Listening makes it okay to be again, buoyed up halfway between where I am and where I’ve been. A constellation of elsewheres to placate insomnia’s paranoia; to be in winter’s dark heart or the long nights of summer, endlessly tuning to atmosphere, cyclonic later, slowly veering from the way. My present tense is always eluding, like ‘In Limbo’ with Thom Yorke’s seaward crooning, the morse code of emotion in whirlpool arpeggios, closing and bleeping and droning on a wave far away, the spiralling weather, the fantasy…Another message I can’t read.
*Full title, of course, being ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798’.
On occasion, consider the girl with an inexplicably beautiful name, like Elsie. Grammatically, you might tie her to a braid of thin synths, might place her somewhere in that tapestry that is folding outwards, onwards in careful, intangible fractals. Intangible perhaps because this is merely a blueprint. A virtual map for the feelings not quite formed, which lie dormant upon the crested reverie of your mind. Sometimes delving into the chest, the warm pangs of longing, softening. You can always ride in 4/4 with your eyes dragging the landscape through a window; a window quite speckled with dust and grit, implications of a Sisyphean journey towards the journey itself. Tear off the plasters from your wounds in Möbius strips. We roll backwards and return like gulls. There is a figure of eight which lacks completion; I see you from outside at all angles but what lies beneath skin is fresh canvas to my thought, is endlessly secret. The bleeding gap.
No, I suppose you are this greatly abstracted expressionist painting—all matter, through and through. Is it for ocherous swirls and flecks of blue that I miss you?
We are less of our finespun selves in the late summer air, natant in filmy dreams. Did I once snag my fingers in your hair, or was that more of the teasing ground, the silver stream? When I look at rivers, I duplicate the movement of a buffering cursor, filling the water with my eyes—or was it the other way round, some lacrimal moment of elusive catharsis? Rivers run always onwards without dams and yet and yet. The many tributaries.
You were so simple, granule of sand on my nail as I was even less to you then. Sometimes we appear as ghosts and the translucency is nourishing, how we shared our fears on the table and you spilled out the tremble of another love. We use up the warm glimmering of the blood to lie on sofas, singing, stripping ourselves to anything. The boat-like apparel of fabric, nonsensical scales of the senses. A late hour; a scarlet, indulgent play on navy. Is this shoegaze? Your pupils, saucer-huge in the starlight.
Syntactical trajectories leave us with tangle tongues and a breeze that is strangely warm. I tried to explain what I meant by a phantom. The needles between us were pointed, were tuneless guitars that slowly resolved into pureness. I can’t explain this. It was all Caliban’s twangling instruments, a foreign isle, a prior enchantment. Ambient. When I picture you now, vines ornament your throat. The fruit of an apple, an apple as fruit. Silver apples, glistering kisses. Bloom of lilac. To bite would be to cut one’s teeth on another luxury, to weep this mercurial ooze into memory. As if you could share it. The vulnerable core which is always cool, a little from reach even as I touch it. Absence.
The heart grows fonder, not stronger. We must sweeten the pill. That clarity of sound, translating all words to geometry. I folded my gaze on the contours of Jupiter, this dystopian promise that softens on a chorus. Why must squares be self-completing? I am a triangle sometimes, fecklessly tessellating. When awake, when moving with sunlight coming through cloud, a ruby blooms in the bone between each breast. Making no sense. My words become vines, strangling on their own fruit. All of it ripening, glowing, blackening. An abstraction of value. The shrivelled remains as a crisp morass of all I could not tell you, the ghost talks that fall over the moment again and again when really we should be…An otherness to the sun. The day a series of strobes, of undulating tides. Always gazing through the weed-steamed haze of tenement windows.
Why must all bass leave us in chasms of the unfulfilled? It groans underneath. Feeling nocturnal, the inverse skin of awareness, regret. Peel me away, my needless rind of sorrow. The pretty chemicals blossomed in a quartet of irises, each green–one of the sea, one of forest. A falling. Nobody twirls in the dirt like you do. We make of this a final calling, a siren crying for the night itself. Why ships scatter across oceans, why they grind on the rocks of human lands. Bone upon bone and just that smoothness of sand. I think you are sick and I miss you. Somebody stopped chewing their lips on a shoreline far away; they let the molecules of morning stir terrible seeds on a blistering wind. I listen somewhere for an organ.
Language became scorpion; the curled tail and the sting, crawling all over you. Born under a wet November, the canopy folded its century’s pleasure. There were golden bubbles in my glass of gin, a clarity of mind, a helicopter like a great metal bird heading east for no reason. Every algorithm allows the unfolding of dreams. In progressive arpeggios or a sparkling smile, the glimpsing which pulls me on through to your face, dioxide, the rosy gauze that swaddles your eyes. I think I am ill without felt protection. Maybe we are toasted, freckled, remnants of joy. I call upon the moon for a lesser jealousy, but she is working on numbers, screaming and counting. Only a fall would be silence, but stumbling is the stuff that muscle weakens, that Elsie sleeps upon like a silver beam while he is weeping.
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).
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).
(So I thought this article was kind of Christmas appropriate, given that in the familiar nativity story, the Three Wise Men bring Jesus the precious scents of myrrh and frankincense.)
‘Perfume is like a parenthesis, a moment of freedom, peace, love and sensuality in between the disturbances of modern living.’
‘To create a perfume you have to be the servant of the unconscious. Each idea evolves and transforms, but there should be a surprise with each note.’
Perfume is a strange part of our everyday lives that acts as a channel of sorts. The word perfume comes from the Latin per (through) and fumum (smoke). This conjures the image of an ethereal essence which, like smoke, carries through some kind of message.We might think of it as an unspoken means of communication, a way of emitting some essence of ourselves to those who happen to pass close enough to catch a glimpse of our secret aroma. One that releases itself only from certain spots on the body, places we have chosen to let the scent develop. I love the way that glossy magazines and figures of high fashion talk so indulgently about perfume. It’s like poetry: a complete decadence of revelry in words. It’s like reading a wine list and falling for a string of adjectives rather than the taste of the drink itself. Rich, smoky, full-bodied, bursting with dark fruits. The poetry of advertisement aims to seduce. So too does perfume: it is a seduction not only in a sexual sense but also a seduction of self. A seduction of memory.
I was probably about nine or ten years old when I made my first forays into the world of fragrance. Certainly, I was still at primary school. I used to sneak into my Mum’s bedroom while she was eating her breakfast downstairs and try on what she had. Her dressing table was never cluttered with pretty glass bottles (more like heaps of unusual jewellery and hair mousse), but she did have a couple of classic Body Shop numbers. There was of course the famous White Musk, which I started wearing often. I liked the soft but heady smell it had, not too overpowering as a floral but sweet enough to stir your senses with its blend of ylang ylang, jasmine, rose, musk and lily. Then a while later, she gave me a bottle of spray she didn’t want, this time the Body Shop’s Oceanus. Or was it Ocean Rain? – no, I am getting confused with an Echo & the Bunnymen song! It was actually quite a strong one, though it wore off fairly quickly. I suppose it was meant to smell sharp and fresh like the ocean, and actually it was quite a nice one to wear at school where P.E. and stuffy classrooms were never conducive to pleasant aromas.
We were of course, forbidden deodorant in P.E. This was at secondary school, where everyone was aware that they had, y’know, adult bodies now, bodies which tended to sweat after exercise (even the half-hearted exercise we attempted in class). The teacher would storm into the dressing rooms at even a hint of spray being used, demanding that the most suspicious looking pupils empty their bag in front of her to reveal the contraband goods. She must have hoarded a whole treasure trove of Charlie and So…? and all those other brands we clung to as adolescents. On such days I would hide my little bottle of Oceanus in a glasses case at the bottom of my bag and spray it liberally once the coast was clear. A sea tide of refreshment filled the room. The contents of that bottle seemed to last forever; in fact, I think I still have some left in my bedroom.
The first perfume that was gifted to me was a miniature bottle of Burberry Touch. It’s a pretty intimate scent, threading together notes which include jasmine, raspberry, pink peppercorn, vanilla and oak moss. It sounds sweeter than it actually is: this is a strong scent but also has an air of sophistication. It feels grown-up and even a bit masculine (perhaps that’s the base notes of Cedarwood and oak moss?). I was fourteen when I got it so it ran out fairly quickly, but I now have a big bottle of it on my dressing table.
I also, at quite a young age, acquired my mother’s bottle of Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Paris’. Launched in 1983, this distinctive scent was meant to capture the spirit of Paris with its heady blend of Damascan rose and violet, which after hours of being on your skin transforms into English rose and whispers of mimosa, sandalwood and musk. There are other beautiful notes in there: orange blossom, amber, jasmine, hawthorne, heliotrope. It’s so complex that I’m still working out whether I actually like it or not. I wore it all the time until I was about sixteen. It’s far too grown up a scent for someone to be wearing at that age, but somehow it matched my wearied spirit. It felt almost exotic, a smell from far away. Something about it matched the impressionistic notion of Paris I had; a Paris which shimmered with the seductions of beautiful art and mysterious, moody people. It was certainly a smell which took you out of the dreary realities of Maybole, if only for that first spritz in the morning. The pale gold bottle with its crystalline, faceted surface and satisfyingly chunky feel still has pride of place on my shelf back home. I’ll spray it every now and again – what’s left of it – when I feel the need for a bit of escapism or nostalgia.
I like to think that when I’m using perfume I had years ago, I’m speaking to some secret old self, one that got lost in the ethereal tangles of time and change and forgetting. For Christmas two years ago, I asked for a bottle of Chloé perfume. Chloé was the first ‘proper’ fashion fragrance I bought for myself, when I was fifteen, in the Christmas sales of that freezing winter of 2009. To this day it’s definitely still one of my favourite scents. Along with Miss Dior Chérie (the orange one), which I also had as a teenager, it’s a romantic scent, sparkling with pretty florals and a dab of French sophistication. Both bottles are adorned with a ribbon to signify the femininity and lighthearted spirit they intend to convey. Chloé is quite a strange and unusual floral, with rose at its heart, honey at its base and the tartness of lychee as its top note. The blend is very smooth and does not induce headaches like some other more couture brands; it is at once instantly recognisable and also quietly luxurious on the wearer’s skin. When wearing it, you want to be riding a vintage bike through some sunshine street in Paris, where all the lamps light up for you, and your destination is a quiet picnic in the park, or a date with a good paperback under the canopies of a Montparnasse café. The bottle is quite short, almost stumpy in comparison to the tall thickness of Burberry Touch, but this makes it easy to cup in your hand to apply. It sits prettily on my dressing table, even with only a few dregs of scent left in the bottom, amid bottles of glitter nail polish and fragments of hair ribbon. If I had to pick a ‘signature’ perfume, it would be Chloé; a friend once texted me saying she was spraying it in a shop and instantly thought of me, which was sweet.
When I got my second bottle of Chloé, the scent instantly evoked that feeling of being fifteen again. It wasn’t an entirely bad experience, it was a taste of having that smallness, that protected enclave of a childhood world again. Or at least, the experience of being on the brink between the world of childhood and the uncertain future of adulthood. Perfume, I suppose, makes an industry of Proust’s ‘involuntary memory’: the idea that under certain conditions, one is transported back to a clear, distinct memory. Not wilfully, but through some item containing the ‘essence of the past’, whose sensory associations stir up the scene of some personal history. For Proust, eating a tea-soaked ‘madeleine’ cake recalled a childhood scene where he ate such a snack with his aunt. For me, spraying Chloé makes me think of warm radiators and school mornings in the cold pits of winter, or getting ready to perform in jazz band concerts, sweating under the hot lights. Leaning against the window of the 361 bus, reading Margaret Atwood. Floating through Ayr on the way to college, stopping always at Debenhams to spritz on their testers. I’d spray the little pieces of cardboard they provide you with and slip them in my bag, so that all my notebooks smelled of my favourite perfume. Sometimes my friends and I would spend an hour or so trying on all the perfumes, until we left smelling like we’d fallen through some vat in a Dior factory, causing everyone in our near vicinity to sneeze violently. I still enjoy doing that, although these days I set my sights on the counters at House of Fraser.
Strangely enough though, the older I get, the more I’ve switched to simpler scents. Part of this is a side effect of student stinginess, but I also like the freedom of buying several scents and being able to choose between them, to suit the weather or the seasons. I guess perfume is just something I tend to waste my wages on, the way that others waste them on Asos, cigarettes or vodka oranges. I have too many Body Shop Eau de Toilettes to count. There’s Chocomania, a very rich and some might say saccharine rendering of lush dark chocolate – perfect for those gloomy winter mornings when already you’re craving your bed and some hot cocoa. The distinctively tropical Coconut, which is, admittedly, more Bounty Bar than fresh jar of cold-pressed coconut oil. Then there’s the clean bright tartness of Satsuma or Strawberry, refreshing for summer. The milk chocolate and almondy sweetness of Brazil Nut. Honeymania, which does what it says on the tin and makes for a perfect late summer scent. I suppose, at less than £10 each, these perfumes make great little gifts or stocking fillers, which last a surprisingly long time. You could mix and match your scents (I like the sound of chocolate orange, brazil & coconut or honey & strawberry), and the small light bottles make them portable for your handbag. And with Body Shop (I swear I’m not a brand ambassador!) there’s always the positive that everything is ethically produced, usually from Fairtrade ingredients.
In a pricier range of perfume, I recently revisited one of my favourite childhood smells, Penhaligon’s ‘Bluebell’, which I got as a present for my 21st. When I was a very little kid, my dad brought back from a trip to London a velvety purple bag full of Penhaligon’s samples. They had enchanting names, like Elixir, Gardenia, Elisabethan Rose, Levantium (oh to have a perfume with the top notes of saffron and absinthe!). The one that stuck with me was ‘Bluebell’, which felt the most quaint and old fashioned of all the scents. The bottle, for one, is gorgeous, a little bit Art Nouveau, a little bit of simple prettiness. I could easily imagine myself, smelling it now, as a little girl running about in a field of bluebells. It’s not over-sweet or stuffy; it reminds me of the kinds of luxurious scents that would be spritzed around in early twentieth century department stores. I think of Cassandra and Rose in one of my favourite books, Dodie Smith’s beautiful coming-of-age novel, I Capture the Castle (1948), as they wander through the fairyland of such a store in London and marvel over the bluebell perfume. You see, there’s more than just chemicals and packaging to perfume; it always has some kind of rich cultural and personal history living in its notes.
Do you remember your first science classes? Most of those memories are probably enriched by the strange smells concocted from an uncertain mixture of suspicious substances. The rotten eggs of sulphur, the acridity of various nitrates. What stands out most for me was a lesson where for some reason we were experimenting with burning different types of foodstuff over our Bunsen burners, to measure reactions to starch or something. Somebody’s Pickled Onion Monster Munch made the entire classroom smell like a Chinese restaurant. The process of perfumery, while aiming for more delicate blends of scent, follows, of course, a similar (but infinitely more sophisticated) chemical process. A perfume will blend natural sources – flowers, fruits, wood, roots, gums and resins – with synthetic productions of those ingredients which don’t produce their own oils naturally, for example lily of the valley. An intriguing guide to the complex scientific process through which these raw ingredients turn into perfume can be found here. I especially like the sound of the enfleurage step, where ‘flowers are spread on glass sheets coated with grease’. Over time, the grease absorbs the scent of the flowers, like a leaf absorbing rain water, just as expression collects the precious oils of various fruits. Alcohol and water are used to distill and preserve the fragrance. That’s why you should be careful not to spray perfume on your eye, or an open wound – or an open fire, for that matter.
Interestingly, like champagne or wine, a ‘fine’ perfume is left to ‘age’ to let the blends develop. Maybe this is why Chanel No. 5, for instance, is such an iconic symbol of ultimate luxury. Its yellow-gold colour always dazzles in department store Christmas displays, but it also reminds one of a pale whisky or dark champagne. Like alcohol, it is intense, maybe even difficult to stomach. Infinitely seductive… complex to create…
Perhaps, like aromatherapy, there is a system to the choice of various scents and flavours. A science to how different people are attracted to different things. While some like a fresh burst of citrus, others revel in the dark sweetness of the likes of Thierry Mugler’s Alien perfume (not a fan). We can all guess that lavender makes you sleepy, lemon is awakening…but maybe there’s more to it all than that. A curious interaction of emotion, memory, desire, sensation… Maybe, after all, it’s the cold December air that led me towards my latest perfume purchase, returning full circle to my first White Musk perfume, only this time with the Body Shop’s newest fragrance, ‘Red Musk’. With its fiery bottle which blends amber, red and black, this Eau de Parfum combines the smouldering notes of tobacco, pepper and cinnamon with a layer of spiced musk. With cinnamon, it’s a dark, shadowy twist on a festive fragrance. Moreover, it’s about time perfume embraced androgyny, as this scent does with its hints of tobacco. Gone are the feminine florals of summer. So while I might be accused of being a hoarder, stashing my perfumes like a witch hoards her bottles of potion, maybe I can justify buying this particular perfume because anything that makes you feel warm (in a flat with single glazing) has got to be good, right?
Picture the wild deer: all elegant neck, soft fur, tawny eyes staring back at you like butter wouldn’t melt. The stag too: a rare glimpse of those striking antlers flashing through forest leaves or the wire mesh of a fence, gazing gallantly over the hillside – a little like a proud lord, a patriarch admiring his land. There is something quite British about the graceful deer; something evocative of country outings, of heritage and sprawling estates, of heads rather unceremoniously stuck on pub walls.
Today, there are more deer in the UK than in any time since the last Ice Age. It seems poetry is the wrong way to go about this; deer have become a real issue.
On the radio this morning I heard reports proclaiming new figures representing an excess in numbers of British deer. Deer, it is argued, in their proliferation, are posing a serious threat to British biodiversity. The overspill of deer will lead to more traffic accidents, more damage to crops and a drain on natural resources. With estimates of the current deer population positing 1.5 million, new research has suggested it will be necessary to kill off 50% to 60% of the animals to fully address the problem.
The above arguments may seem persuasive reasons for tackling ‘The Deer Problem’, but I would like to step back and question these fundamental justifications given for widespread slaughtering. I want to question the idea that the – let’s face it, unintentional – disruption of food-chains by deer warrants their culling.
My objection to culling derives not from an inherent concern with the ethics of killing animals – the morality of the practice of culling is another difficult issue – but from the premises given to defend culling by appeals to the negative consequences of an excessive deer population.
The problem I have with culling can be understood by considering a convincing argument offered by Australian philosopher and rights activist Peter Singer. Singer declares, somewhat radically, that ‘all animals are equal’. Yet this statement is not as controversial as it appears. By ‘equal’, he means not that we should treat all animals the same – Singer is not justifying giving rabbits the right to vote or freedom of speech to chickens – but that we should give equal interest to all creatures, regardless of species. Singer points out that any claim asserting the superiority of human beings over other animals is arbitrary, speciesist.
Consider the reason we typically give for justifying the accordance of moral supremacy to humans:
1) Humans are rational creatures, or at least significantly more rational than other animals, and this makes our lives intrinsically more valuable.
Singer’s problem with this is that not all humans are rational. What about a child with Downs Syndrome, or a person in a coma? What makes them more superior to say a highly-intelligent primate if they lack rationality? Consequently, Singer states, any attempt to argue for human rights over animals is going to run into the problem of speciesism, since there can be no universal claim for the rationality of all humans. Speciesism is just like racism or sexism, in that it appeals to untenable claims about the essentially superior ‘nature’ of a particular race or sex which gloss over the reality that not every person within a race, sex or species shares these characteristics. If the sexist argues that men should be paid more because all men are more intelligent than women, his argument is rendered invalid by the stark fact that this is a sweeping, fallacious generalisation. Likewise, the speciesist cannot justify exploiting animals for human need by claiming humans are intrinsically superior because all humans are more rational than animals.
Therefore, for example, an argument justifying animal vivisection to support the more-valuable lives of humans (by exploring cures for cancer) will have to concede that this argument also, logically, licenses vivisection on non-rational humans. And I think most people would agree this seems a little distasteful.
Singer’s argument is compelling: the only relevant consideration that unites all humans, then, is sentience – the experience of pain and pleasure. An experience inherent to the lives of most animals and all humans.
Back to deer then.
The justification for culls is primarily their threat to the food-chain: too many deer means too much consumption of natural resources, too much disruption to the natural environment which other animals are dependent on. Deer, munching and treading and stomping all over our country’s flora and fauna, are threatening other wildlife. All very well.
But what about us? Aren’t we a threat to wildlife? What about our fossil fuel omissions, waste disposal, annihilation of forestry for paper, our excessive industry, infrastructure? Our pollution of lakes and rivers? Surely all this amounts to much more destruction than an overabundance of deer trampling on the landscape and eating too many acorns?
Well, it may be argued that we are humans; we are entitled to do these things because they fuel our rational progress towards more enriching lives. What gives us the right to think the world is ours to destroy, but not that of the deer? I would argue that our threat to the food-chain is significantly greater than that of our deer population, and yet I hear of no ecological experts advocating human culling.
Let’s be clear: I am not advocating human culling. But think about it: are we morally justified in killing deer because too many of them destroy the environment, when we wouldn’t do the same to humans, whose excessive population is also consuming too much of Mother Nature’s milk, and tainting it with acid rain in the process? If there is no relevant moral distinction between humans and animals, I find arguments which devalue animal life in favour of maintaining human interest deeply problematic. And after all, this isn’t just about preserving nature for nature’s sake, this is about preserving nature for people – for farmers, ramblers and future generations.
I acknowledge that there may be other reasons why culling might be justified – I am no environmental expert. Reducing deer numbers may work in the favour of their species, as too many deer means many will starve due to lack of resources. It is obvious how this can be turned around to humans: again, most people would object to human-culling because there isn’t enough bread to go round. Therefore, if there is no plausible moral distinction between humans and animals, then culling is difficult to morally justify, even if it produces certain good consequences.
It’s a thorny issue, and one that people often don’t consider; culling doesn’t seem to raise the same controversy as animal testing, hunting or meat-eating, because it is seen as a largely benevolent, if a little unpleasant, way of improving conditions for people and wildlife. I believe, however, that we should be concerned – at the very least, philosophically – with the flawed argument that lies at the heart of culling practices.