Playlist: June 2018

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These bias-cut days of diagonal action, mostly slow rise and decline, drift into restless though feathery sleep. ‘The dreamer in his corner wrote off the world in a detailed daydream that destroyed, one by one, all the objects in the world’. So goes Bachelard and my own sense of crawling, hovering, in the cracks between things. Letters, cups of tea, cutlery, brushes and pens, awakenings. I worry that making a fantasy means reality won’t happen. You can spend too much in your dreams. I pay my debts in daily wandering, lifting plates and cracking hard metal off the grinder to fill up the cylinder with further coffee. Speak standard grade French for ebullient tourists. A, petit pois! What was it he said? A vast divergence between work and vocation. What splits in you and hurts evermore like a skelf. I’m waiting at the bar for a check, looking miserable because elsewhere in my head.

The heat brings fights to the park. I seem unable to read in daylight.

Caffeine dissolves all sticky platitudes of self-surrendering, the negative web. Objects I love become loss, so I stop. Pull out the game. Everyone I know seems to be moving away. There are these Instagrammed images of shifting reality. I ‘like’ them as if to say…

So maybe I go home but not really. So maybe in my father’s car, passing the house I grew up in which now has a shiny white 4×4 in the driveway. There is a dj with the same name as a boy from my school who wore ill-fitting boots. Remember I told him I was pregnant with triplets. I know every road and house in this town. Nothing alters on the virtual maps.

Two miles south. There is this playground in the forest, pine-built tunnels that lead through the treetops. I shimmy my way through child spaces, accessing the world from a miniature angle. I chew away low-level anxiety. We sit in the park, rolling buttercup stems between our fingers. Think in yellow, and have no thorns to distance me. There is so much to discuss but this chat is symbolic only; mostly between, mostly hungry. I cycle around Govan in aimless circles, prolonging the river with industry. People sit on walls outside their houses, but they are not talking or rolling tobacco or playing chess.

Half of this month is a blue-dark nothing. No difference between eve and day but shades of blue. 4am my friend, our twilight spirals. I’m aching.

I spend a weekend in Munich and meet the illustrious Robert Macfarlane, who wears a mushroom pin badge and enthuses on Sebald. The Bavarian meadows are everything. I write condensed sentences in my notebook, sometimes unsure of source: ‘The painting asks the viewer to prefer shadows to sun’, ‘The brain’s sweet opening to calm and green’. I am travel tired, pleasantly so, and involuntary naps overlay with words—so images stir around me, lift from the page new worlds. I take photographs to mark a certain summer. Foxgloves, cash machines, the margarine tree; gorge of solstice which gives into poems.

We share wine outside. I lace my sangrias with a bottle of port, you’d call it darkling sunset, but not a good taste. How often this month have you woken to fog in your head?

Black-and-white plate of burnt kale.

Is our depression competing? Compression.

Admissions of sickness, 39 likes, mustang. He only smokes when drinking.

Maybe we don’t need sleep at all!

What lore of virtual archipelagos? I think of each chat log itself as an island.

My brother came home on the last day of May. Now off to Israel he leaves in our flat a blue bag of avocados, three fillets of salmon which rot in the fridge.

Sometimes time does me a favour. The way roses look at four in the morning, gilded with lamp light against husky sky, a faint azure. The hazy look of Lana roses, a vintage filter in always already.

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The tenements were blood meridian. Sun moving west.

Scrunch salt to make curls in my hair. Post-chlorine shower feeling. Involuntary.

Wake to your messages, drop more before sleep. Two blue ticks. See everyone and then again everyone leaving. Homesick for dialect, yelling haneck. A mosher at heart requires eyeliner always. I keep some old stone beneath my pillow.

The lines around your eyes, a ring for every hour not slept.

Fall into chorus of gulls and whispered recordings. All of my gross human narcissism.

A birthday. Rose dress and fishnets, refusal of dancing. Middle-name. Tanqueray forever.

I resolve to make new

Slim readings, okay so I swore and did not cry because I’m saving my hot bright tears for July. Cute motivational pastel skies. Line after line being temporary.

There’s a song but I just want everyone glowing around me.

When they played ‘Keep Yourself Warm’ in Sleazy’s.

I would look up, intermittently, through a canopy of light-filled leaves. I’m sorry.

As if nothing happened, / I’m so busy, I’m so busy.

When it burned down we were in the street, all interlocked, we could see the embers. Blue and red. Helicopters overhead and my heart in my throat, something lisping the skin of my ribs.

The comedown just happens. I’m not the only one who’s numb.

Invitations to the Catty all weekend.

Work a whirlwind of smiles and graduations. Bottles of prosecco forgotten and balloons that go missing in minor scandal. I try to be better. Accessing all these families. There’s heat and light and a barbecue; ‘Some Velvet Morning’ dragging the scene to its sunburned, surreal conclusion.

Deleuze for the Desperate makes me wanna visit Devon.

Word of the month is ‘catatonic’.

How lucky we’ve been with this weather!

I hope something pure happens, softens inside me. Precarious mentality preserved in blue.

Little sweet, cycloramic tweeting.

After that article, feeling wholly grateful for my vision. I mean she had scars on her irises.

Does anyone ever want pineapple juice?

Slimmer now, reflection in coffee shop windows then not. Near tears on the phone. It’s mostly viral, the body’s bright omens. Everything revolves or resolves around you.

An hour a day I actually feel adult.

Calum does my tarot again and this time there are mermaids, mountains, a perfect circle.

Rodefer, Rodefer, Rodefer:

‘Breeze, trembling trees, the night, the stars. And there you are,
      in a manner of speaking.’

Infinite ugly gas bills from winter.

Disclosing my name as if to say, the end is near. Everyone lovely is reading Remainder. So talk of football and residuals, the free cappuccinos. A system.

‘You two look intimidatingly cool.’

I start painting again but find it hard to mix colour. I want the authentic, luminous lime. There will be a triangle off-centre in the heart of this landscape. Is it even a landscape.

Bike through gushing rain to get back to the present. We dwell awhile in the darker mezzanine, listening to the passing trains, the motorway traffic like hard waves sloshed against a sea wall.

My excuse is, this is all just sketching.

Better for energy, blessedness! A very old episode of Grand Designs.

Somebody somewhere is square-going a seagull while you read this.

Jazz gigs & taxis.

Fear of swallowing moss is utterly irrational, totally a Virgo thing. Intelligent attention.

She is likely to put on a facade of indifference.

Feel bad as ever for bailing.

Slather myself in factor 50, go out to embrace the evening. It’s half past three and I wear white cotton, 30 degrees washed and then a whole new 30 degree heat. Times the right way you make ninety, then three, the year of my birth. Somehow survived a quarter century.

I drink black coffee and watch seven swans moving towards me slowly.

Back on the west coast, I want Lee Harwood to describe the sea. Thin haze of blue Arran and my childhood dreams.

Later.

Even managed to change the sheets. The electricians came without warning.

Late.

Walk 20k steps for the sake of a stranding. June is all over me.

Skewed in a sunburst pleat, I wear less and contain my reactions.

Lately. 

Light and luxury.

 

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* * *

Sharon Van Etten – For You

Kathryn Joseph – From When I Wake the Want Is

Fiona Apple – Paper Bag

Cat Power – Lost Someone

The Weather Station – Free

The Innocence Mission – Bright as Yellow

Frightened Rabbit – Nitrous Gas

Feng Suave – Honey, There’s No Time

Devendra Banhart – Your Fine Petting Duck

Lou Reed – Coney Island Baby

Bright Eyes – June on the West Coast

The National – About Today

Parquet Courts – Before the Water Gets Too High

Man of Moon – The Road

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – French Press

Ryan Adams – Come Pick Me Up

Tom Petty – It’ll All Work Out

Low – Just Make It Stop

The Jesus and Mary Chain – Sometimes Always

Aïsha Devi – Light Luxury

Vessels – 4AM

Ross From Friends – Project Cybersy

Prurient – Christ Among the Broken Glass

Oneohtrix Point Never – Toys 2

Mazzy Star – Still

Snail Mail – Thinning

There Will Be Fireworks – Foreign Thoughts

Damien Jurado – Ohio

A. Wesley Chung – Neon Coast

Erin Rae & the Meanwhiles – Clean Slate

Gillian Welch – I Dreamed a Highway

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The Bog Girl’s Dark Ecology

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Red Desert ~ Source

My body was braille

for the creeping influences:

Seamus Heaney, ‘The Bog Queen’ (1975)

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.

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The mariner shoots the albatross, plate by Gustave Doré

 

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.

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glitched landscape ~ Source

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.

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Source

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.

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Source

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?”

(Russell 2016a)

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…

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I looked upon the rotting sea, and drew my eyes away ~ Gustave Doré.

Bibliography

Bennington, Geoffrey, 2004. Other Analyses: Reading Philosophy (Bennington Books).

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, 2015. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Available at: <http://www.bartleby.com/101/549.html> [Accessed 1/3/17].

Derrida, Jacques, 1994. Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International, trans. by Peggy Kamuf, (London: Routledge).

Derrida, Jacques, 1996. Le monolinguisme de l’autre ou le prothèse d’origine (Paris: Galilée). [The translations I use from this text are Geoffrey Bennington, cited in Bennington, 2004.

Haraway, Donna J., 2008. When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).

Menkman, Rosa, 2011. The Glitch Moment(um) (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures).

Morton, Timothy, 2010. The Ecological Thought (London: Harvard University Press).

Morton, Timothy, 2013. ‘Thinking the Charnel Ground (The Charnel Ground Thinking): Auto-Commentary and Death in Esoteric Buddhism’, Glossator, Vol. 7, pp. 73-94.

Morton, Timothy, 2016. Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York: Columbia University Press).

Red Desert, 1963. Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni [Film] (Milan: Rizzoli).

Russell, Karen, 2016a. ‘The Bog Girl, The New Yorker. Available at: <http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/06/20/bog-girl-by-karen-russell> [Accessed 1/3/17].

Russell, Karen, 2016b. ‘This Week in Fiction: Karen Russell on Balancing Humour and Horror’, Interview by Willing Davidson in The New Yorker. Available at: <http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/fiction-this-week-karen-russell-2016-06-20> [Accessed 1/3/17].

Woolf, Virginia, 2004. Mrs Dalloway (London: Vintage).

The Subversive Spatiality of Pokémon Go

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Zubat on Hope Street. Image Source: Glasgow Live

I scroll down my Facebook timeline, and there is a photograph of a pavement – on a real street which I recognise – and on that pavement is a Pidgey. You know, the wee brownish flying thing from first generation Pokémon? I scroll down a bit more and folk have been out and about all over the place: there’s a Weedle on the gingham tablecloth in a cafe, a wee purple-grey Nidoran on a hay bale, a Magikarp bouncing around by the Kelvin. This is, if you haven’t guessed already, people sharing their spoils from Pokémon Go, an augmented reality game which allows you to catch Pokémon in the wild, a.k.a real life. There was a glorious month in the summer when you could go for a walk and see clusters of people milling around with their phones in the air, as if trying to channel some ethereal spirit that was wafting in the atmosphere. They were out catching Pokémon. All of a sudden, people were going for walks again, leaving the house and the cosy glow of the television to catch invisible beasties who lived in trees and parks, museums and street corners.

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Safari Zone Map from Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire. Image Source: PsyPoke

As a kid, I was an avid Pokémon fan. I missed the boat for Red and Blue but had Yellow, Ruby, Sapphire, Leaf Green for my Game Boy Colour and Advance and played them all to death. What I loved more than the battles was the wandering part. So much of your time is taken up pushing your way through long grass, cycling along seaside promenades, bobbing along the ocean, taking shortcuts through forests, crossing through dungeons, traversing the plains of mountains and deserts. You’re constantly interrupted by Pokémon encounters; so much so that often you double back in confusion, any instrumental pathway you’re trying to take disrupted by the screen switch to a battle. The towns often had such picturesque names as ‘Petalburg City’, ‘Sootopolis City’, ‘Lilycove City’ and ‘Mossdeep City’. Then there’s Meteor Falls, the Sunken Ship and Sky Pillar – these are just from Ruby/Sapphire alone. Yes, the game has a final purpose: you’re supposed to beat the gym leaders of every town and follow some convoluted let’s beat Team Rocket narrative, but often its trajectory is beautifully non-linear. You can explore, catch Pokémon in your own time, find side quests to achieve, people who need help. Acquire potions, level up your Pokémon, learn intriguing stories from local mythology.

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Screen Cap from Ruby/Sapphire. Image Source: WikiHow

There is an obsessiveness to Pokémon, a desire to always repeat. As much as possible, you find yourself returning to previous towns and locations, either to seek out more Pokémon known to appear in the area or simply to explore, to see what you’ve missed. Invariably, you do nothing new, and manage to enjoy that process of wandering again. You fight the same Pokémon, hoping they will flee but secretly enjoying taking them down in one shot with your level 40 team, where once you’d have to fight tooth and nail with a goddamn Zubat. To some extent, Pokémon is a rhizomatic game: once you get to a certain stage, the world is yours to explore and you can map out your own routes and lines of flight as you see fit, flying and sailing and seeking locations of your choosing. However, you are still governed with the impulse of narrative, which spurs you onto particular places: sometimes you can’t move on till you’ve beaten the gym leader of that town, for example. You can regress, but not progress. There’s that sort of macho narrative of levelling up which you’re impelled to follow. It’s only when you’ve completed the game that you can reap the rewards of complete exploring.

Pokémon Go changes that. By transferring Pokémon to real life, you are as free to explore its terrain as you are to wander the streets of your local town or city, or indeed the plains of the countryside. Real life is transformed by augmented reality, the imposition of Pokémon on material space. Creatures that only the player, holding up her phone, can see. This is already getting very Black Mirror, but wait. It’s a competitive game, yes, but there aren’t the drastic consequences of social exclusion and alienation experienced by many of Black Mirror’s tech addicts. There is a lovely playfulness to Pokémon Go which somehow has generally avoided becoming cutthroat competition. For a while, everyone was playing it. It was a form of camaraderie (folk would go out in packs to hunt for Pokémon, or indeed organise mass hunting expeditions via Facebook). More time was being spent on the Pokémon Go app than on Snapchat, Twitter and Whatsapp. I’d go into the kitchen at work and the chefs would gleefully show off their Pokédex; which was glorious, seeing all those familiar creatures again in this new and surprising context. And since chefs have hardly a moment’s time when they’re not in the same place, working 14 hour shifts at a time, I can only imagine the extent to which people in other walks of life played it.

Pokémon Go is a strange way of making people notice their surroundings, particularly in the sense of urban space. Sure, most of the time their faces are glued to the maps on their phone screens, but in placing themselves in the world, they are forced to confront physical structures, obstacles, windows, private property and so on. It becomes even more of a game when you have to work out how to attain Pokémon in  elusive locations. I’ve heard stories about folk knocking on your door asking if they could come in because they’ve noticed you’ve got a rare Pokémon in your house. It sounds pretty sinister, but it shows the level of commitment the game inspires.

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Animal Crossing Town Map. Image Source: Neoseeker Forums

Think of it this way: why is it so addictive? Like Tinder, it’s a form of locative media which uses your GPS to determine who or what will appear in your surroundings. Pokémon Go also uses your phone clock, as different types of Pokémon appear at different times of day. I’m reminded here of one of my favourite games, Animal Crossing, where you could go fishing and bug-catching but what was out there was determined by the ‘real time’ of your Game Boy’s internal clock. It followed the real time of a 24 hour day, of the seasons and so on, so that in December there’d be snow and falling leaves in autumn. It was very beautiful and the real time aspect has an addictive quality. I think it’s because the game becomes less a form of escapism and more a parallel to reality, to everyday life. You know it’s reached that status when The Mirror runs a how-to guide, eh?

What’s so cool about Pokémon Go is how it adds meaning to real space. A school, town hall, park or pub becomes a Pokémon Gym and everyone wants to visit. I swear business at my work improved for a month as we quickly realised we were a Pokémon Gym and groups of sullen young adults would gather silently at bar tables, trying to battle other trainers at the gym and hoping to win Pokécoins. A guy I work with would heavily protest when he saw someone playing the game because he was currently gym champion and got surly at the prospect of newcomers taking his title. If I was late bringing someone a coffee, nervous they’d be grumpy with me, often they were so distracted by the game that they’d not even noticed the time. In a sense then, Pokémon Go transforms both time and space. Everything is flattened into a map, where flashing nodes indicating Pokémon are the symbols of desire, the objects of pursuit.

In a compelling, complex and challenging article on Facebook as a ‘desire-network’, Maria-Daniella Dick and Robbie McLaughlin argue that ‘Facebook effects a mutation in desire and thus in capitalism’, and in tandem with this, a ‘historical shift inn the relationship between psychoanalysis and capitalism’ (Dick and McLaughlin 2013). With Facebook, ‘desire remains impossible to satiate, but it is now without object’ (Dick and McLaughlin 2013). They suggest that Facebook is situated within the Lacanian Imaginary order (which constitutes the intrinsic narcissism through which the human subject constructs fantasy images of both herself and her object of desire). According to Lacan, desire (unlike need) is always unfulfilled; we are always moving towards a lack, the anxiety prompted by something lost (as in the child’s original sense of wholeness before discovering the fragmentation of her parts, the split between her body and world and mother, in the mirror). The Imaginary is that which we create to attempt to fill that fundamental gap, the fantasies of the ‘ideal ego’ which compensate for an originary loss. Facebook is basically the ultimate web of the Imaginary: all our time is spent scrawling through pictures and statuses and shared media which all in various ways represent fragments of the ideal selves we project online. Yet our browsing is ultimately without end, it is ceaselessly rhizomatic, decentralised; we end up on one place, a restaurant page or old friend’s profile, without really knowing how we got there. Our passage through the network is governed by algorithms which attempt to map our desires; algorithms which are self-sustained by users’ input data, the patterns of usage recorded with every click. While this may seem revolutionary, a democratic decentering of the system, Dick and McLaughlin are highly sceptical of Facebook’s subversive potential at the scale of the political.

While the likes of Facebook were integral in the organising of such glocalised (global/local) revolutionary events as the Arab Spring or the Occupy Movement, ultimately ‘[s]ocial networking completely embodies and facilitates these phenomena in which the masses are now able to organise efficiently but without being unified by a radical ideological alternative’ (Dick and McLaughlin 2013). The fragmentary pathways of Facebook map out the lines of insidious liberal democracy, and as engrained as they are in corporate culture (the corporation itself becoming the medium for mass communication) offer little opportunity for imagining visionary alternatives to liberal capitalism. Crucially, Facebook (with all its user-directed interfaces based on algorithms of taste and so on) perpetuates the myth of the liberal individual, who curates her profile, her tastes, conducts a life of many choices. As Dick and McLaughlin (2013) put it: ‘[t]he so-called 99% are already conditioned by a liberal democracy in which they have the self-identical sovereignty of an individualistic ideology that places the subject at the centre of the world’. To really offer a vision for an alternative future, we have to actually come up with a plan. Recognise that we are always-already networked individuals, whose subjectivities are hardly unique and instead constituted through structures of discourse and power, and use this in a positive way, to undermine the liberal justifications for free-market capitalism.

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Pokémon in Edinburgh. Image Source: Google

What does all this have to do with Pokémon Go? The thing is, Pokémon Go seems like innocent child’s play, but it’s bound up in the politics of space. It’s fundamentally structured by GPS software and urban space, and let’s face it, urban space is always ideological. Whether it’s homeless spikes, shiny new glass-fronted apartments built where Brutalist high-rises used to be, gated communities, the psychotic disarray of London’s property market, the genuine promotion of American Psycho-style yuppie-targeting ads or simply the denigration of social housing as ‘slum housing’, space and architecture is always somehow political. In a recent talk given at the University of Glasgow titled ‘Remembering the Future: The Politics of Space and Architecture’, Darran Anderson argued that the current failure of the Left is a failure to put forward a vision of the future that is compelling and actually positive; if we don’t act soon then someone else (i.e. Donald Trump and his cronies) will determine the future for us. One way Anderson proposes we can intervene in the social order is through architecture, by building sustainable forms of urban space, housing and energy production that take into account the fact that we are living in the Anthropocene. We need to accept the imminence of ecological disasters, which are indeed already happening. Oh how Trump hates those windfarms. We need to rethink our fantasy imagery of the city; it needs to become a network of playful imagination, of empowerment, rather than just passive defeat, or the kind of share-lite politics, browsing, blasé escapism and distraction offered by Facebook.

What is interesting about Pokémon Go is that it restores to some extent the object of desire, which Facebook, in its endless networks of people, places, photos and check-ins, displaces. ‘With Facebook’, Dick and McLaughlin (2013) argue, ‘people no longer live the present as present; it exists only insofar as it is exists to be recorded and later uploaded to Facebook’. This temporal displacement shifts with Pokemon Go, which insists on the present as present. Pokémon only appear for a limited amount of time so the imperative is to catch them in the game space of the now. The impulse of shopping or clubbing to buy buy buy or drink drink drink is gleefully interrupted by the appearance of Pokémon, who are quickly snapped up and snapped, shared online. The allure of ‘cool’ or the aura of dreamlike consumption attached to consumption-based social places is disrupted by the childlike logic of the game. And there’s nothing the companies can really do about it, since technically Pokémon isn’t intruding on reality, it’s only intruding on maps of reality. Now I’m thinking of that Jorge Luis Borges story, ‘On Exactitude in Science’ (1946), and getting very confused about reality itself. In the story, Borges imagines an empire where cartography has become so exact that its map of the empire must match in size and detail the empire itself—after which, what’s the difference between the map and the original? Do you need the map anymore, or can you use real space to map out real (map?) space?

There is almost something a tad Situationist about Pokémon Go. It offers no restrictions on movement, the way the Game Boy games do, according to a linear narrative. If you want that elusive Vulpix or Meowth, perhaps you will have to explore territories previously uncharted in your running app or Instagram places map. You might end up in the strange end of town. And what will you find when you get there? Traversing space this way leads to opportunities of surprise and discovery. The fact that so many people are posting photos of their Pokémon Go encounters online adds a new palimpsest of meaning to our understanding of place. The appearance of Pokémon disrupts the order of cities; it adds new points of desire to the map.  Sure, most gyms are in tourist hotspots, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to explore the more unseemly areas of town to catch ‘em all. In wandering out your comfort zone, you’re enacting a sort of De Certeauian ‘tactic’, resisting the signage and flows of capital which generally direct your movement in urban space (i.e. according to the circuit-like lure of the shops, the home or workplace). Ironically, you’re doing this at the inspiration of a global corporation (the folks who own the Pokémon Go app), but in this case, it doesn’t necessarily mean your actions and movements aren’t subversive. Nevertheless, the transgression of space according to augmented reality is unfortunately still bound by societal racism, highlighting the fact that we experience space differently according to who we are—despite its best intentions and possibilities, a game like Pokémon Go can hardly overthrow the prejudices of the Repressive State Apparatus…

Since Pokémon Go is based mostly on algorithms of mapped information, there is an element of chance which escapes the systems of data (could we call this glitch a Lacanian intrusion of the Real?). Pokémon crop up in controversial places. Since ghost Pokémon are attracted to graveyards and places of mourning (think: the original Lavender Town), they have been appearing in places like the Holocaust Memorial or Ground Zero. The incongruity of the playful critters in these places of silence and solemnity is startling and forces us to rethink our expectations of memorialising space. In a sense then, for better and worse, Pokémon Go has a reterritorialising impulse. Sure, you can report inappropriate places and instigate a process for removing them from the Pokémon Go map, but that initial appearance, based on some kind of algorithmic randomness, has already violated the implicit expectations of such places in terms of silent respect and mourning. There is in a sense an overflow of the gaming impulse, where the augmented reality becomes more distracting than reality itself (even when you are in such a compelling and startling location as the Holocaust Memorial…).

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Houses that crumble…Screen cap from Omer Fast’s 2015 adaptation of Remainder, starring Tom Sturridge. Source: Belfast Film Festival

Perhaps this is the danger then, of supplanting a fictional reality (the map) for the territory itself. I’m thinking of the protagonist in Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder (2005), whose response to trauma is to assemble a detailed map of a very specific retrieved memory, based in a house where there was a very specific synaesthetic symphony of liver-frying, cats on roofs, piano playing and motorbike clanging. Eventually this map is transferred to the ‘real’ as the protagonist recreates mimetically the details of this spatial memory. Yet pursuit of the real is addictive; the protagonist soon begins recreating more extreme and harrowing memories he’s encountered: traffic accidents, bank robberies. What intrudes, eventually, is the remainder: the real itself which spills out of the recreated event. As McKenzie Wark writes in the preface to McCarthy’s novel, ‘[t]he simulation is never perfect, always in excess of the thing itself. It always leaves a remainder. The most troubling remainder is himself [the protagonist]. He is a leftover God, a God as debris of creation’ (Wark 2015: xi).

In a way, Pokémon Go represents a God-like desire to reconfigure reality, to impose the Imaginary space of the simulated game upon the ‘game’ of ordinary existence. Is this a postmodern statement of irony, a pastiche of 1990s nostalgia in the age of the smartphone? Yes, and no. There’s something kind of modernist and sincere about it too, a sense of genuine interest in creating the Big Project, a utopian potential for gaming to bring people together. While Pokémon Go is partly about earning currency (Pokécoins) to buy more materials which help level up Pokémon or revive them during battle, its general impulse is towards exploration. Conquering, yes, to an extent; but mostly exploration. What happens when you’ve captured every Pidgey in your neighbourhood? You travel farther, maybe even beyond your hometown or city. Of course there comes a point where most of us get bored and stop playing, but there was a moment when the game genuinely seemed to interrupt reality in a way that felt genuinely liberating. The fact that so many people deemed it silly, a waste of time and completely illogical only highlights the ways in which the game resists the general instrumentalism of capitalism (i.e. every minute should be spent doing something useful, like finding ways of accumulating money and furthering one’s career). The time wasting aspect, the fact that so many people love its paean to repetition (you can walk the same route every day and still get different Pokémon appearing), is a queer sort of logic; it goes against capitalism’s futurity, the linear progression of temporality, in favour of a kind of maddening impulse of looping, overlapping desire. We accumulate the same Pokémon several times and this is part of the internal logic of the game, compelling us to traverse the various spaces again and again. It represents at once the immateriality of twenty-first capitalism (as based on flows of ‘invisible’ capital and immaterial goods, symbols of status) and the potential for subverting the logic of accumulation to one that is both bizarre and based on the ethics of play rather than success.

Sure, a great deal of the game might be about levelling up and being the best, but you can also play it with general disregard to those impulses. Collecting, in a sense, transforms the use-value of goods by placing them in a new circuit of information, taking them from the marketplace to the geeky world of the collector, whose interest in based on details and aesthetics, often more than financial worth. Just look at what happens when someone tries to make money off becoming a hire-out Pokémon Go trainer: they are threatened with being banned from the game, since it violates their code of ethics/terms of service. Play, rather than capital, is at the heart of the game’s map of trajectories. It brings people together – even adults – in a space of play. I’m not saying it’s changed the world by any means, and indeed it has its slightly absurd but very real dangers, as people blithely ignore the potential perils of the real landscape in pursuit of the desired (simulated) object, like Icarus flying too close to the sun…However, there’s something genuinely refreshing about how Pokémon Go forces us to reconfigure our sense of reality, space and the routing of our desires and movement. While world-views are shrinking and narrowing in post-Brexit times, Pokémon Go reminds us of the value of expanding our horizons and getting up to just go and wander, maybe aimlessly.

There will always be moral panics over deaths from selfie-taking, planking and cavorting in dangerous places, but will there be anything quite like Pokémon Go?

Bibliography
(other references are hyperlinked in the text)

Anderson, Darran, 2016. ‘Remembering the Future: The Politics of Space and Architecture’, Lilybank House Seminar Room, University of Glasgow, 15th November 2016.

De Certeau, Michel, 2011. The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press).

Dick, Maria-Daniella, and Robbie McLaughlin, 2013. ‘The Desire Network’, Theory Beyond the Codes, [Available at: http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=727] Accessed 21/11/16.

Wark, McKenzie, 2015. ‘Preface’, in Remainder by Tom McCarthy, (Richmond: Alma Books), pp. vii-xii.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future: A Year in Review

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How are you meant to review a year when the year itself isn’t quite over? You try and think of it as a block of time: a chunk of events lumped together to form some kind of history. You’re always reaching out for connections, trying to box things and label them as such. This was the year I got divorced and found my freedom; the year I graduated and stepped onto my career path to success; the year I lost someone dear to me and found solace in a new hobby. The movies have it all mapped out for us, the way we’re supposed to review the events in our lives. Facebook, Flickr and other social networks that we rely on help us with this theatre of memory, by archiving everything together in chains of photograph albums and status updates. Events are strung together in relation to chronology and names and computer-configured faces; what happened to who, who was tagged where, who liked this and who got married and who had a baby and who got promoted. Every element of time is rendered orderly, linear. Compartmentalised to make us all competitive, individual, empathetic, jealous. We’re moving on a straight line towards goals, achievements – more notches to add to our timeline.

But what end are we moving to? A timeline cannot flow on indefinitely; or can it? Surely it’s meant to document an A to B, a fixed period in time with all the events this period contains (contained). Life, as we commonly think of it, is a series of events strung together only by their relationship to the future, to development and change. We hate stasis; we love drama. Really, as Freud put it, what we desire is death.

Desire, however, isn’t quite as simple as this. Freud, as Deleuze and Guattari argued, ignores the basic tenants of capitalism. The need for more, more, more which arises not solely out of some psychoanalytic lack, but out of production itself. The act of purchase, the mesmerising experience of lifting up some pretty snow globe and spinning it in one’s hand and thinking I would like to buy that. The flicker of a giggle as we take it home, imagining how our new product is going to enhance the life that fills our fragile hours. Fill a room and create new topographies of mental space. For everything we see disrupts our schemas of reality, even if only slightly. The snow swirls up and covers the landscape and for that moment we are free from the chaos around us.

What we are looking for is T. S. Eliot’s ‘still point in the turning world’: that perfect moment where we are at peace with ourselves, where we see through to the present itself amidst all the churning miasma of the world we exist in. The wars and media images, the headlines and celebrity photographs and radio crackle and dance music beating and phones ringing and Blackberries bleeping and all the million signals that flicker in our brain as we gaze into a computer screen. For we are multiple, divided, networked creatures, always-already caught up in swarms of information. Time is not a static archive, but a rhizome of interconnected possibilities that flash and shift and click in our minds.

And what’s more, events in time always come back. The logic of the return. Write a sentence and press the Enter key. We aren’t just running forward into the bright light at the end of some metaphorical tunnel. We follow our lives in a loop. Spilling over and retracing our steps. Think, for example, of a book: meaning is made not from a linear plot, but from the intricate play of signifiers and motifs which weave a melody of meaning throughout the narrative, linking the past and present with a possible production of future. That old New Critical interplay between Fabula and syuzhet.

Real life too. Wars return and people die in the same way, as if re-enacting the past in some big-budget film, tracing archives of pain that carve out a bitterness in history. We stand in the mirror at roughly the same times each morning and perform the same routine. Routine, like it or not, structures our whole mentalities. That’s why culture is formed on the basis of habit and ritual. Religion falls in here too. Are we always waiting, as Yeats suggested, for the Second Coming? The ‘revelation’ that is always ‘at hand’, ‘surely’? Let’s circle back to the start – of the twentieth century, to be specific. Freud says our personalities are determined by the first few years of our lives. Our anxieties now repeat the biological functioning of our infant bodies. Are we so caught up in ourselves that we cannot think beyond our bodies?

***

What does it mean to be in simultaneous temporalities? I write this sitting by my newly-decorated Christmas tree, in the living room where I spent almost every Christmas of my life since the age of three. The smell of pine and the reflection of fairy lights through the window lighting up the pampas grass in the garden. Everything wondrous and dark. Remembering lying on the floor after a day in town drinking Jack Daniels and shivering cold on the bus and listening to Muse’s ‘Butterflies and Hurricanes’ and dreaming of another night so unlike this. The frozen park in November with the roundabout and fireworks and the tall black shadows of the distant trees. Now the steady showering of rain at the window, spraying like glitter under the orange lamp light. Once there were family members sitting where I sit now, all laughing and ripping open presents and drinking sherry. My dog Bella climbing over everything, whining and wreaking havoc with the whip of her tail. I slip through all these memories until they feed my present. I cannot focus on one thing alone. I feel like I am several people at once. I am no longer singular. No longer a statistical person.

What happens when you are no longer one person? There is a politics to this. There are the people that believe in return and repetition. People whose whole religion is based around recurrent events and cyclical time. The solstices of Paganism, then the spiritual systems of the Mayans and Aztecs. This contrasts with the Judaeo-Christian vision of linear time, which starts with Creation and ends with the Second Coming. But what if this Second Coming was always coming? To come? Since the present is contaminated with the future (unconsciously or not, the things we think and do are always shadowed somehow by some possibility to-come), doesn’t this render the idea of ‘the present’ almost impossible? Do we slip into the spirals of Yeats’ gyre and Derrida’s spectrality?

Are we on a road or an ocean? A stream or a snowball?

Capitalism and heteronormativity set out a life plan for us. Find a mate, get married, reproduce, recreate the system. Work, earn money, pay your way. Consume. These are all instrumental processes which work towards goals. Inside these events we make our own histories, certainly, and there is a degree of creativity and fulfillment. We aren’t just pawns. But this isn’t the whole story. Here comes in Judith Halberstam’s queer temporality. What happens to the temporal experience of those who do not follow this conventional route to eventual death? Who fill their lives with more entangled possibilities which are fraught with uncertainties and questions rather than fixed narratives and clear answers…

Remembering his lover’s death from AIDS, Mark Doty says: ‘all my life I’ve lived with a future which constantly diminishes but never vanishes’. The looming possibility of a non-future, a future without hope or action or life, shifts the focus back to the present. Gone are the regular goals of ‘making a living’, ‘providing for the future’, ‘putting something away’ for one’s children. The next generation are often invoked in political discourse. Global warming is dangerous because it will spoil the world for the children of the future. Non-heterosexual relationships are supposedly dangerous because they don’t follow the capitalist ethic of (re)production in the strict sense. Atheists threaten the idea of progression because they do not believe in a future beyond. The list goes on. Sometimes we are unaware of how important time is to politics. If we ‘queer’ time by questioning the validity of its conventional Western linear conception, what kinds of lives can we live in our present political realities? How can we change – perhaps even revolutionise – the system. There’s the old doctrine of Hedonism – live out your pleasures in the present with a general disregard for others and the future. But the present isn’t inherently selfish. It’s a place where people can come together and change things, without being bound to the very isolated narratives of old age and death.

Drugs, jobs, relationships and illness all alter our experience of time: slowing it down, speeding it up, blurring it, erasing memory, making us fearful for the future. As these things become less stable and more unpredictable, how will this affect the future?

Will we have a future, or will it be a series of presents? Can we really look to the future?

Maybe the answer is in science fiction.Think of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), which explores the concept of anarchist politics through ideas of simultaneous temporality and cyclical return. Revolution and repetition are in operation at the level of both form and content: story and narrative, narrative and story. Time revolves in curious ways around and between two planets, just as a moon revolves around the Earth…but what does the Earth do when you are on the moon? Einstein’s relativity comes to disrupt the easy narrative of linear time, even at the level of science…

Maybe the answer is also in our own experience. Think of a memory. Any memory you have: the first time you rode your bike, the time you fell over while dancing drunkenly on a beach in the freezing winter, the time you lost your first pet to the grovelling paws of death. All these memories do not stand alone in our minds like a physical photograph stuck and labelled in an album; but are rather bloated and blurred with the original anticipation of the event itself, and of the aftermath – the events which have happened since and in turn coloured the original. Repetition is not static but transformative. Moreover, human beings revel in repetition. The simple pleasures of revisiting an event, even if just to experience the same emotions again as they recur in a faded form like a polaroid misted by the breath of time. Maybe that’s why people have children, so they can do the things they miss doing as a kid. And as Fredric Jameson points out, in the postmodern condition of consumer capitalism, nostalgia becomes an industry itself, shaping culture from advertising to film and literature. As our lives get more complicated, faster, information-saturated – we return to an idealised, rosy history that is often removed from any genuine meaning.

***

I always find Henri Bergon’s work fascinating, when I can get my head around it. He was writing around the same time as William James, the psychologist that first coined the term ‘stream of consciousness’, which is still widely used today to describe the workings of our minds but also how these workings are depicted in certain kinds of literature. Yet a stream has linear connotations, assuming that our mind is always ‘in flow’ – moving forwards and never stopping or growing, just streaming onwards. Bergson, however, figured consciousness as an experience of ‘duration’. Think of any moment, any moment as it happens. As soon as you think of it, with a milli-gasp of a second, it’s gone again. Time is always shifting and never static or complete. While science might attempt to chart time in a linear, measured fashion with clocks and calendars and equations, in our psychological experience; time does not easily fix itself to such points. It can only be grasped by imaginative intuition; it is always fallible and contingent, never the same as each moment reconfigures the last, endlessly shifting our experience of the world and ourselves: ‘my mental state’, as Bergon puts it, ‘as it advances on the road of time, is continually swelling with the duration which it accumulates: it goes on increasing – rolling upon itself, as a snowball on the snow’. And so where does that lead us, if not to the icy abyss of our certain deaths?

Well, for one thing, it actually confirms that we are not mechanical beings, destined to follow the path that time lies out for us. Sure, we will probably all die. But importantly, if Bergson’s theory works, we have free will; imagination plays a significant role in determining our relationship to the past and future. The moment is always an evolution, and this gives us a kind of freedom.

There are, of course, a multiplicity of links between return, recurrence, rupture and revolution. The breaking free of history as history is understood in a linear manner, read from front to back like a traditional book.

Literature has a long history of delving into irregular conceptions of time. An example might include Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005), in which an unnamed protagonist decides to reconstruct a series of memories after coming into a large sum of money following a mysterious accident. These reconstructions are performed down to the smallest of details: the expression on an old lady’s face as she takes out the bin, the cats that prowl the rooftops, a crack in the wall, the pattern of floor tiles, the sound of liver frying in the flat below. What follows is a topography of static memory, caught in the narrator’s imaginative present. Time loses its linear quality as the past plays out in ‘real time’ with the narrator switching his memory scape into ‘on mode’, hiring ‘re-enactors’ to perform the roles of the people in his memory. And yet an amnesia and aporia haunts the narrative, as we are never quite sure where these memories originally came from; whether they even belong to the narrator. With a book like this, we lose the certainties of the traditional realist novel and the linear movement which often ended so finally with the closure of marriage or death – the first promising reproduction and progression, the latter an ultimate extinction that ends the line. There is something about the novel form in general that links it irrevocably to time; it is not contained in a performative moment like poetry, but must be read over a series of hours or days or even weeks. We physically must turn the page. Days pass in the novel, or maybe they don’t, as in the one-day novels of Woolf and Joyce (Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses). Novels often concern themselves with memory and futurity; the sheer arrangement of sentences on a page, moreover, takes us through time. Time flows as we read. We make connections and go back again; we are at once linear and circular as we exist as minds in a novel.

But we are now in the era of the great hypertext, which denies all paths to origin in its networks of complex code and multiple nodes. The Internet exists largely in a state of simultaneity, connecting various presents from around the globe. And yet, like Bergsonian duration, it resists a static conception of time; everything about a webpage is always changing as new file paths are forged, different visitors leave their online traces, new links and reposts alter the original location. Life is a labyrinth, but we would do well to forget thinking about what lies at the end. Maybe we should focus on the here and now, and give ourselves the freedom to transform the present.

***

And this year? Well, this year started with a parting: losing my most beloved pet to death. All life is a natural cycle though, as the year ended with two new births in our family. On New Years Day 2014, I went for a walk to refresh my head from working the night before. A man stepped out of the 24 hour newsagent with a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 and cracked open the screw top to a dream of futurity that ended in drunken oblivion. I feel this is somehow fitting.

Most of my months passed in the library with the seductive glow of the computer stopping me from doing much other than reading and essay writing. I fulfilled both of my somewhat humble resolutions to a) do more creative writing and b) grow my hair down to my hips. I passed my exams and spent my 21st birthday hanging upside down at the park. Went to Dublin and even got a bit tanned and kind of liked Guinness. Saw Little Comets twice, first at Cabaret Voltaire and then Liquid Rooms in Edinburgh. Spent quite a bit of free time in Edinburgh actually; explored the Botanic Gardens and the beach at Portobello and went for walks at Dean Village. Listened to lots of Belle & Sebastien, Manic Street Preachers, the new Bright Eyes album and a heap of other stuff. Bagged an iPod classic before Apple stopped doing them. Had one of my best Wickerman Festivals and ate coffee granules for the first time. In August I went down to England to see family and ended up at Stepney Green, going ‘back to the ancestors’. Drank a lot of ginger tea and did some yoga. Went to Loch Lomond. Averaged about a kilo of chocolate a week, mostly Dairy Milk. Got a blog article put up on WordPress’ Freshly Pressed which was lovely. Went through the referendum and came out a little deflated but unscathed. Also enjoyed the spirit of the Commonwealth Games, even if I couldn’t really give a toss about sport. Saw an amazing sunset on Ayr beach, all alcopop pinks and oranges burning and sinking into the silver sea. Wrote three times my dissertation then another proper word-count-conscious dissertation and didn’t go completely insane. Served Alasdair Gray some brandy and a few months later . Started playing trombone again. Enjoyed one sip of red wine and dyed my hair strawberry copper. Went to a conference call to Peter Singer. Changed my favourite study space in the library…

Yep, as you can probably tell, my 2014 hasn’t been exciting by most people’s standards. But you know, it was a very good year overall. God knows where I’ll be a year from now, having graduated and moved out and hopefully made some provisions for the future. But even if I haven’t, even if it seems that not much has changed, what does it matter when everything dissolves in a series of moments? 😉

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Some Reading:

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.

Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution.

Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets.

McCarthy, Tom, Remainder.

Halberstam, Judith, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives.

Inception: Dreams and (Dis)illusion

source: http://oeaf.blogspot.co.uk/2012_05_01_archive.html
source: http://oeaf.blogspot.co.uk/2012_05_01_archive.html

Inception is a film that begs itself to be watched twice. Following what appears to be a complex dual narrative of both emotional turmoil and psycho-political manipulation, Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster success turns on an exploration of the implications of the very personal act of dreaming being appropriated externally as a powerful means of mind-control. Yet whilst the film indulges in Hollywood-acknowledged action scenes – from a gravity-defying fight sequence in a surreal hotel corridor to a car tipping off a motorway bridge – it also diverges from the traditional narrative style of mainstream movies. With the seemingly complicated premise of dream-stealing intertwined with the intimate personal journey of the main character Cobb (played by DiCaprio), the film’s exposition is unravelled in an on-going fashion and so we are plunged straight into the action. The main storyline centres on a deal that Cobb strikes with Saito, a powerful global businessman who proposes that in order to use his influence to let Cobb return to the USA (Saito can eliminate false extradition charges held against Cobb), Cobb must perform the task of inception – a task that takes him and his colleagues deep within three dream-layers in order to manipulate another man’s mind. What is interesting about the film is not necessarily its deceptively confusing plot but the way it is told – the story itself – and the techniques the film employs by meshing the genres of sci-fi, psychological thriller, film noir and heist in order to raise questions about narrative seduction, dreams and the power of the unconscious.

While many heist films unveil their major technical premise at once, as a character explicates the details of the mission to his/her colleagues, Inception works in a fashion that Kristen Thompson calls ‘continous exposition’. In this sense, the aim of Cobb’s team of dream-thieves, as well as the physical laws that govern the practice of dream architecture and inception (the implanting of an idea into another’s mind so that they imagine it to be of their own creation), are revealed gradually throughout the film and during scenes of both explanation and action. The character Ariadne takes her name from the Greek heroine Ariadne, who falls in love with Athenian hero Theseus and helps guide him with a ball of string though the Cretan Labyrinth in order to assist him in locating and slaying the Minotaur. Similarly, Inception’s Ariadne plays a key role in not only helping Cobb to disentangle the repressed emotions regarding his dead wife which continue to haunt him and disrupt his dream work, but also as a pupil of the dream-workers she learns and responds to the workings of the dream-world, thus illuminating the film audience with the features, possibilities and ontology of dreaming through her character.

This gradual unravelling of exposition plays a fundamental role in the seductive quality of Inception’s narrative. Talking about the task of exposition, Nolan explains:

“Exposition is such a massive demand […] It’s something you have to just try and imbue in the relationships of the characters. You never want to find yourself in a scene where characters are passively receiving information in some way, because you don’t want the audience passively receiving information. You want them engaged with that dramatization.”

It is this engagement with understanding, this active involvement in working out the enigma, the puzzle, which makes the film so gripping. Rather than spoon-feeding the audience a fully-blown detailed account of the principles of mind-control, Nolan reveals slowly the inner workings of the machine of dreaming. Information seeps out of the action as characters exchange advice and teachings, and as things do or do not go to plan we are often left to extract our own conclusions about how the laws of dreaming work. This mode of exposition is thus fundamentally tied to the events of the film itself, rather than an intrinsic system of depth which can be quickly absorbed and applied to the film as a whole; the labyrinthine revealing of secrets and mysterious truths refracts from storylines and action across to the revelation of Cobb’s unconscious traumas, so that the audience find themselves caught in a play of possibility and information that moves as swiftly as the characters as they set out on their complicated mission.

I suggest this fast-moving, yet richly-layered form of narrative is highly seductive in its ability to lure viewers in to the depths of the film in a way that relies on the vivid exchange of surfaces, visuals and meaning. Seduction, as Baudrillard (2001) identifies, is fundamentally an ability ‘to deny things their truth and turn it into a game, the pure play of appearances’. One way in which a narrative can seduce, then, is by denying its audience fixed answers, a technique which enables the endless ‘play’ of possible meanings. This draws us in so that we play an active role in the ‘game’ of interpretation, a technique of seduction which seems very appropriate given the often vague and mysterious nature of dreams themselves.

In Inception, there are a lot of deliberate ambiguities, and things that are revealed to be not quite what they initially seemed to be. For example, the question of what is a dream and what is reality. This is a problem that we learn Cobb suffers with, and it is one that is well documented in literary and film history. Whether from overuse of psychadelic drugs, or some form of mental pathology, there have for decades been characters portrayed as losing their grip on the thin line that separates reality and fantasy, dream-world and actual experience. Examples that spring to mind are A Beautiful Mind and Black Swan, which both offer provoking depictions of schizophrenia. Psychosis is also a difficulty that Cobb’s deceased wife, Mal, has fought with. Mal and Cobb spent a great deal of time in ‘Limbo’, a world of endless pure subconscious creation that is formed in an on-going fashion by those that occupy it. It seems by definition to be an abyss of the mind, a place to be trapped in ceaseless possibility – lost in one’s own creative, expansive subconsciousness. You enter Limbo when your physical body is heavily sedated, and either you are killed in a dream or at a complex dream level (in the film, level 3) when you fall asleep. It’s a strange and vicious concept that has a dark allure to it – the suggestion that perhaps when people enter comas their minds are elsewhere, trapped, unable to get back to reality.

When Mal and Cobb finally make it out of Limbo, Mal soon loses the ability to distinguish this real world from the world they fashioned in their dreams. Eventually we learn that this is because Cobb only managed to get himself and Mal out of Limbo by planting through inception in Mal’s mind the idea that the world (at that point, Limbo) was not real – persuading them to commit suicide in order to be kicked out back to reality. Yet the idea that the world was not real grew like a parasite and tormented Mal until she could not accept even reality as reality. She thought she was still dreaming: that her children were just projections of her consciousness, that the physical environment was just a fabrication of memory and imagination. To remedy this perpetual state of insecurity, she decides to kill herself by jumping from their high-floor apartment into the abyss below.

I think this form of suicide poses interesting questions about the nature of consiousness and our self-awareness within the world. To what extent do we really know that this environment that seems so solid and familiar is in fact real and actual? We know what it feels like when we are dreaming: time is sped up, often fragmented (an issue dealt with in Inception, where there is a mathematical formula that encompasses the disjunction between time spent asleep and time in reality, where one can dream for 50 years but be asleep for merely three hours), we wake up when we die or when there is some sort of ‘kick’, which might be something like loud music or physical pain – a jolt that wakes us up. Yet although it seems easy to distinguish dreams and reality, how do we know that there is just one ‘reality’, or that our notion of reality is just an elaborately designed, prolonged dream? It’s a problem that was posed a long time ago by René Descartes, who suggested a form of radical scepticism about the nature of reality. Descartes proposed that all our conscious experience could merely be a dream-state, manipulated by an all-powerful and omniscient ‘Evil Demon’, who could control everything we do and everything around us. This is the famous ‘brain in a vat’ philosophical problem that has been explored in films like The Matrix, and becomes evermore salient as virtual reality and technology advances to provide evermore realistic and vividly detailed artificial environments. What it comes down to is the fact that we really cannot know (or can we?) the metaphysical nature of the world: our knowledge leads merely to a non-passé, or an abyss (like the one Mal plunges into), an endless recursion to the possibility of multiple imagined or experienced realities.

And who are we to judge that the world in the film is reality? What if Mal, in leaping from the metropolis to the dark void below, really did escape to a higher level of consciousness, a real world? The film cuts rapidly in and out of the different dream levels inhabited by the characters in their mission to conduct inception on Fischer, a businessman (to persuade him to break up his father’s monopolying empire – maybe someone should try and do this to a young Murdoch). This technique not only disorientates the audience and imbues the film with a surreal quality but it also highlights how our perception is fleeting, rapid, built up of impressions. Reality, then, is very subjective, and the distinction between psychological reality, the durational experience of time and physical reality with linear clock time. Nolan seems to want to emphasise this ambiguity of experience and reality with the ending, which closes on the image of the only anchor an individual possesses to reality – the totem: a small token whose unique, personalised weight, balance and appearance enables its owner to discover whether they are in their own waking/dreaming reality or another person’s dream – if they are in another’s dream the totem will feel strange. Cobb’s totem is a kind of spinning top, which is set to topple over if he is awake and to continue spinning if dreaming. At the ending, Nolan shows Cobb’s totem both spinning but also provocatively starting to topple. This means we do not know if the film closes with a conventional happy ending, with Cobb finally reunited with his children (mission accomplished) or whether he is simply dreaming about the event.

In the hope of drawing some line between dreams and reality, it is useful to consider the concept of the ‘kick’ featured in Inception. It’s interesting when real-life stimuli enter our dream-world: for example, in the film Cobb is thrown into a bath of water and in his dream water floods in through the windows. The ‘kick’ designed to withdraw the characters from the triple layers of dreams they are in is a piece of music, which resonates throughout each level like an uncanny scent or breath of memory – not just the physical stimuli of sound. I have had many dreams where I am drowning and can’t breathe – the pain physically sears up in my chest, but when I wake up I realise I’m somehow suffocating myself with my pillow! Not only is there some psychoanalytic value in studying what makes us wake up from dreams (hello, Freud), but the concept of the ‘kick’ raises intriguing questions about where mind and body collide, and how much of consciousness is interwoven with all those nerves and neurons to our physical form. Certainly this very phenomenon refutes the now very-dated but religiously popular form of Cartesian ‘dualism’ which proposed the mind and body were distinct forms of matter, so that when the body dies the soul remains and can go to heaven or hell. If mind and body are different materials, then how can they interact so intimately?

On the question of psychoanalysis, the film borrows heavily from Freudian ideas about the interplay between and the role and nature of dreams and the unconscious. The characters in Inception spend a great deal of their time lucidly fabricating dream-worlds and occupying the dream-worlds of others, as well as switching between dreams and reality, that it is no wonder that many of them suffer a mild psychosis whereby the distinction begins to break down. Freud himself deemed psychosis a ‘disturbance in the relation between the ego and the external world’.

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud posited that our dreams contained symbols transmitted from the underworld of our unconscious, symbols that represented repressed desires and wishes (usually sexual) that are too uncomfortable or psychologically painful (due to the effects of oppressive socialisation) for us to admit consciously. He says: ‘the interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind’. So a dream where you steal your dad’s hat could have awkward Oedipal consequnces, as Freud thought that hats were often representations of genetalia. The possibility that you have sexual feelings for a parent is painful to acknowledge consciously due to society’s incest taboo, so instead this desire reveals itself only in dreams.

The consequences of psychoanalysis seem quite profound in unsettling our conventional idea of reality. If so much of our perception of reality seems to be subconscious, this makes it difficult to assume that there is a clear, objective definition of a singular reality, since everyone is driven by multiple interlocking wishes. The central emotional plot of Inception is a psychoanalytic one, as well as a conventional Hollywood drama of a distraught father who misses his dead wife and would risk the life of himself and his team for a chance to see his children again. Dr. Stephen Diamond makes the interesting point that Cobb’s unresolved guilt and anxiety regarding his involvement in manipulating Mal’s psychological state and (somewhat inadvertedly) causing her suicide is projected symbolically in the form of Mal herself, as Cobb’s ‘negative anima’. Mal haunts many of the dreams Cobb creates and makes it difficult for him to do his job properly, as her shadow-like and disruptive figure keeps reappearing in times of crisis. Ariadne, ever the guiding light, at one point takes up the role of psychoanalyst and tells Cobb that the only way Mal is going to go away is if he lets her go – if he resolves his inner conflicts with his memory of Mal.

The ultimate goal of being reunited with his children flickers through the film in the recurring appearance of the boy and girl playing together on the grass with a beam of sunlight. Subtle differences in their appearance occur between the different shots, which suggests perhaps an alteration in Cobb’s memory of them, or the real process of aging they are experiencing – again, a blurring of reality, memory and dreams. In the end, when Cobb finally returns to his children but the camera finishes by focusing on the totem, we are left with the uncanny possiblity that the children may not be real, instead merely (as Mal feared) ghostly projections of Cobb’s unconscious. However, the warmth and joy we gain from seeing this satisfying ending feels real. Does it matter what really happens? I think Nolan employs the ambiguity here to self-reflexively acknowledge the strange status of film as often a vividly realisitc visual projection of reality, portraying visually and auditorily objective reality and also rendering the subjective inner life of individuals. Film can seem all too real, but it is often fictional, and like a dream it is a temporally-compressed representation of reality. When the credits roll and we are suddenly thrust back into our everyday environment, we realise that we have been intensely caught up in this other-world, its visual universe has been painted upon our eyes for the brief time that we have been watching. It has become part of our reality. We probably won’t forget it; we might even dream about it.

Baudrillard, J. (2010) Seduction, trans. by Brian Singer, (Montreal: CTheory Books), Available online: <http://free.art.pl/fotografie/baudrillard/seduction/BAUDRILLARD-SEDUCTION.html> [Accessed 25.01.13].

Descartes, R. (1641) Meditations on First Philosophy.

Diamond, S. (2010) http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evil-deeds/201008/inception-art-dream-and-reality

Freud, S. (1899) The Interpretation of Dreams.

Freud, S. (1924) Neurosis and Psychosis.

http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2010/08/12/revisiting-inception/

source: http://vegzetmernokei.blogspot.co.uk/2012_10_01_archive.html
source: http://vegzetmernokei.blogspot.co.uk/2012_10_01_archive.html

Wordsworth’s The Prelude and the Death(?) of the Author

Wordsworth’s The Prelude is a pretty formidable poem, not least due to its length. I initially encountered it in my first year of studies as an English Literature undergraduate, within a course entitled ‘Writing & Self’. There was no obligation to tackle the entire poem – we just had to look at a few extracts and try to get to grips with Wordsworth’s philosophy on the relationship between nature, memory and selfhood. Selfhood. That elusive concept; you think you know it, but no – the post-structuralists, modernists and Samuel Beckett have something radically different to say about it. Not going to lie though, I really enjoyed it in the end. The really long poetry? Not so much…

At the time, I was disinterested in the seemingly repetitive obsession with the natural world, what seemed like bland blank verse, and the endless length. However, after studying more recently Milton’s marathon-of-a-poem Paradise Lost, with all its mythical references beyond my grasp, Wordsworth’s doesn’t seem so scary. In fact, I felt the urge to go back to it and think about how my perception may have changed. What interests me about it now, with (hopefully) a little more intellectual maturity, is not only the poem’s emotive value but also the way it sheds an interesting light on some theories I’ve been looking at recently.

Roland Barthes, in a famous essay called ‘The Death of the Author’, argued against the Romantic conception of author as god-like genius held by writers such as Wordsworth:

[…] a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.

The idea that no writing is original, but instead a ‘tissue of citations’ borrowing meaning from the myriad of texts and other references (written or oral) floating in the social world of language has profound consequences for the way we approach literature. The notion that literary texts do not contain a single, ‘intended’ meaning released by the authorial author was posited by the New Critics of the early twentieth-century, Wimsatt and Beardsley. In ‘The Intentional Fallacy’, Wimsatt and Beardsley argued that good criticism shouldn’t try to decipher an author’s intended meaning but instead look at how the poem succeeds in creating meaning through its form, claiming simply that ‘judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine. One demands that it work.’ Their definition of what ‘works’ in poetry was that style contributed to substance; in other words, the poem’s metre, rhyme and metaphor evoked the feelings and understandings appropriate to the poem’s meaning – a meaning that should be deciphered, then, not in reference to the author’s intentions but in reference solely to the text on the page. The New Critics, however, differ from Barthes in that they believe a text contains a complete, unified meaning that can be ‘unlocked’ by studying the text, whereas Barthes is saying the text is inherently plural, due to the unstable and intertextual nature of language and literature.

Going back to Wordsworth’s The Prelude, an epic poem defined by its status as the autobiographical unfolding of a poet’s personal and artistic growth (a quest for self-expression famously rewritten by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh from a female perspective), seems problematic within the context of twentieth-century New Criticism. How are we to approach a poem that is concerned primarily with the poet’s mind and experience?   A poem that Wordsworth has literally put himself into? The poet himself described The Prelude as ‘a poem on the growth of my own mind’. Is it possible, then, to ignore his presence, and relegate the autobiographical context of the poem to a shadowy distance?

I think the two positions can be reconciled. Wordsworth’s poem may delve into personal experience, but he is by no means the only poet in the world that does so – let alone the only poet interested in the relationship between art and nature. Criticism is used to finding inventive ways of looking at a poem that may or may not involve the poet’s self and life. We could, in the following of Harold Bloom’s ‘Anxiety of Influence’, consider how his use of blank verse constitutes an Oedipal struggle with his predecessor Milton. We could examine the more political elements of the poem, and how they relate to the cultural and social context of the time, or even the complex philosophical ideas Wordsworth espouses.

I myself am interested in the poet’s voice: the way he narrates fragments of experience to build up to the whole of his self, his artistic vision. I am also interested in the fluctuating effects of self-estrangement and unification, and the evocation of memory that permeates the text. Here is one of my favourite extracts of The Prelude:

One summer evening (led by her) I found

A little boat tied to a willow tree

Within a rocky cove, its usual home.

Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in

Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth

And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice

Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;

Leaving behind her still, on either side,

Small circles glittering idly in the moon,

Until they melted all into one track

Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,

Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point

With an unswerving line, I fixed my view

Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,

The horizon’s utmost boundary; far above

Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.

She was an elfin pinnace; lustily

I dipped my oars into the silent lake,

And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat

Went heaving through the water like a swan;

When, from behind that craggy steep till then

The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,

As if with voluntary power instinct,

Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,

And growing still in stature the grim shape

Towered up between me and the stars, and still,

For so it seemed, with purpose of its own

And measured motion like a living thing,

Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,

And through the silent water stole my way

Back to the covert of the willow tree;

There in her mooring-place I left my bark, –

And through the meadows homeward went, in grave

And serious mood; but after I had seen

That spectacle, for many days, my brain

Worked with a dim and undetermined sense

Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts

There hung a darkness, call it solitude

Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes

Remained, no pleasant images of trees,

Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;

But huge and mighty forms, that do not live

Like living men, moved slowly through the mind

By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

 

A New Critical reading here could look at many poetic elements and examine how they contribute to an overall meaning. Indeed, I think the New Critical approach always has great value in unlocking the text – not in the sense of unlocking some kind of hidden meaning – but in unlocking the nuanced structures and framework of techniques that produce particular effects. Yet this kind of close reading can also go hand-in-hand with considerations of writerly subjectivity and creation, especially for an overtly autobiographical work like The Prelude. Although Wordsworth termed poetry ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’, he also noted that it was ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’; in other words, poetry comes from the self, from a kind of organic inspiration caused by worldly experience, but it is only upon reflection and considered reconstruction that good poetry is created.

Of course, whether poetry comes from the self or not is irrelevant to New Critics, and for Barthes, this notion is flawed since all language is social: ‘it is language that speaks, not the author’, he claims in Image, Music, Text. It is, however, worthwhile to perhaps consider the ‘ghostly’ presence of the author in the text. Barthes himself admits in The Pleasure of the Text that the reader’s idea of the author plays a fundamental role in his/her reading of the text: ‘in a way, I need the author, I desire his presence’. This intimacy between reader and author is enacted as a kind of strangely corporeal, erotic relationship – where the reader desires the author’s body, in a kind of strip-tease effect as the text is unravelled before the reader’s eyes; but also by the reader, as the text is ‘played’ – as it offers up its ambiguities and gaps for the reader to fill in with his/her own meaning. The presence of the author is the promise of meaning. When I read Wordsworth’s poem, and look for meaning, I am not just thinking of the words on the page – inevitably I have some hazy conception of the writer who writes them, the man wandering the Lake District with words whirling round his brain like blossom caught in the wind. Without my sense of the author, I feel as I open the cover of a book, the text seems hollow; I need to conjure his/her presence to enter the threshold of fiction, and of meaning.

This of course applies to certain texts more than others. If I have no real knowledge of the author, I am able to approach a text with a ‘pure’ mind, but even then, I unconsciously scan for clues as to the possible links the text has to other writers and traditions. The text, then, seems always to be situated in some intangible web of meaning, and only sometimes is the author present, a spider or spectre creeping elusively around my reading of the text.

So, back to the ghostly presence of Wordsworth in this extract. Who is he – who and when and where is the speaking ‘I’ – is it Wordsworth, the physical hand, gnarled with old age (and those trips to the Alps) writing the poem, Wordsworth the young boy (returned to in memory or literally re-living his younger self?), Wordsworth the imagined author, behind a desk in Dove Cottage, conjured by the reader’s imagination…Or perhaps all of these, an uncanny amalgamation of identities? Wordsworth himself never lived to see the poem published; indeed, he was revising it again and again until his final years. So we can’t even be sure which temporal Wordsworth was writing these lines. Which words came at which age? When reading, I feel the fragmented sense of time come together in the quiet and consistent flow of the iambic lines. It seems like the author’s true identity, his ‘true’ intentions or involvement in the poem, slip away under the seduction of the poetry and language.

Milan Kundera in Art of the Novel mentions a distinction between poets with and without history. Wordsworth might here be difficult to classify because he wrote both intimate, lyrical poems and also ones which dealt with the politics and history of the time, such as the Industrial Revolution. In the above extract – a mere snippet of the whole poem, which does at points get historical – I’d like to consider Wordsworth a poet without history; the ‘I’ of the speaker merged with both the poet and the young boy who steals the boat. Memory has transformed the experience into a sublime perspective on the transcendent greatness of the world, the ‘familiar shapes’ evolved into ‘huge and mighty forms, which ‘do not live / like living men’. In other words, forms that will not breathe and change and die like humans, but remain in a powerful position of natural supremacy – an existence that to Wordsworth as a developing poet and young man was almost formidable, ‘a trouble to [his] dreams’. Kundera points out that ‘pure lyric poetry lives in feelings’ which ‘are all given to us at once’, but intensify in the mind of a poet. I feel that Wordsworth’s moving account of the transition of the landscape reflects this, particularly as the weighty blank verse and enjambment create that sense of moving, progressive and natural feeling.

Yet it is also a strange feeling, the sensation and memory of terror that recalls in the eye/the ‘I’ of the poet’s mind. The emotions experienced as a boy are part of the bank of material that builds up to produce poetic inspiration. And yet memory is not a film-tape, recording past events with absolute accuracy. It is malleable, subject to revision, always related to the present moment in which it is recalled. Wordsworth called these ‘spots of time’: moments where some flash of previous existence will burst into consciousness – a thought, a memory, a feeling, a scene from a novel, a line of verse, a melody from a song. This strange release of the past into the fiery now of the present can not always be explained, but they are essential, in Wordsworth’s philosophy, for the development of self. As Locke argued, the self is a continual being only through the continuation of consciousness, and it is through these ‘spots of time’ – gaps in the fabric of our present that catch some thread of our past – that our identity continues to be woven together into a coherent selfhood.

And so, in slight relation to selfhood, the idea of genius, or a poet without history. Barthes has destroyed genius, in his destruction of authorship. We can accept the theoretical ‘truth’ or weight of this, but still acknowledge, at least psychologically, some kind of notion of genius. Genius doesn’t have to mean brilliance, but as Kundera’s book suggests, it conveys something special and unique about creative writing, in that it is inevitably in some way produced by feeling – and this feeling is inextricably related to one’s personal experiences, even if the writer is not aware or rejects this in their writing. Personal experiences are unique, and even though language is not, it is our individual way of assembling language in direct relation to feeling and consciousness that makes writing something special, perhaps magical; that makes writers not merely what Italo Calvino in ‘Cybernetics and Ghosts’ calls ‘literary machines’, churning out elaborate patterns of words from the dictionary.

Moreover, and this may link with Barthes’ writings on readerly pleasure, genius can lie in the reader too. A genius that transcends language, the feeling of what Barthes calls ‘jouissance’ or bliss, that occurs when a text ‘imposes a state of loss’ upon the reader. For if the reader is involved in producing meaning from this lost, he/she too has some kind of genius. When faced with the lines: ‘For so it seemed, with purpose of its own / And measured motion like a living thing, / Strode after me’ we are struck with the sudden, lightning bolt connection between past and present. ‘Seemed’ highlights the idea of visual recollection, of memory recalled in the present. The uncanny anthropomorphism of the ‘huge peak, black and huge’ recalls a childhood terror, but also the adult’s terror of the unknown. Wordsworth, the writing poet, cannot recall exactly what made the peak so terrible. It is merely ‘huge’, ‘huge’ – a monstrous presence burgeoning repeatedly in his memory and thought. This strange severance between feeling and meaning is a kind of bliss, and a kind of fear. The loss is what is left out in the mind; just as Wordsworth’s recollection is a distortion of childhood fright and adult ‘trouble’, the reader’s perception of that looming black peak is the facing of an abyss: ‘there hung a darkness’. An abyss of possibility. What is the nature of the child’s fear, why can Wordsworth recall it – what is it in his present moment that brings back that memory? The only way to find out is to trail the poem’s entirety, searching endlessly for clues that connect the ‘stars’ of the poet’s psychology, of the poem’s constellation of meaning. Yet there will always be these chasms, where it seems that meaning is lost – where, as the black peak separates the ‘I’ from the ‘stars’, the reader faces an aporia, a non-road separating the word on the page with its meaning, its interpretation. The author’s intentions are lost, and the dictionary fails us.

I have tried to compare Wordsworth’s experience of nature with the experience of reading, as an activity profoundly connected with both loss and creation, with darkness and strangeness but also the ‘sparkling light’ that seems to seduce us into the bewitching land of literature.

‘To give an Author to a text,’ Barthes argues, ‘is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing’. I don’t think this is entirely true. I think that if you allow the author’s presence, at least at some ghostly level – and this has been discussed somewhere in Derrida’s writing in a much more sophisticated way than I have here – you can open the writing. For the author creates more problems, as a character not quite inside or outside the text. The uniting of the reading and writing self; navigating the text and giving it meaning; facing up to the strange array of images and sounds that lead a meandering path through the poem – that is poetic genius.

 

Works Cited:

Barthes, R. (1967) ‘The Death of the Author’, translated by Richard Howard, Available at: http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf [Accessed 11.3.13].

Barthes, R. (1980) The Pleasure of the Text.

Kundera, M. (2003) The Art of the Novel. New York: HarperCollins.

Wimsatt and Beardsley – ‘The Intentional Fallacy’. Available at: http://letras.cabaladada.org/letras/intentional_fallacy.pdf

Wordsworth, W. The Prelude. – began in 1798 and published in 1850, the year of Wordsworth’s death.

 

 

 

‘Be Right Back’… Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, Simulacra and the Uncanny

Source: blogs.independent.co.uk
Source: blogs.independent.co.uk

Freud published his essay on the ‘uncanny’ in 1919, almost a hundred years before Brooker’s captivating TV series was created. The essay and its related concept’s influence on film, literature and psychoanalysis has been hugely important. But what exactly is ‘the uncanny’? It is a term inherently bound up with the ‘disturbance of the familiar’, with upsetting conventional definitions and perceptions of reality and truth, of feeling and thought. The creation of uncertainty, unease; the dissonant feeling of being simultaneously repelled and attracted to something. Freud defined the uncanny as a paradoxical sense of unfamiliarity growing out of the familiar; the term in German is ‘Das unheimliche’ – which literally translates to ‘the opposite of what is familiar’.

Black Mirror. Even the title is uncanny. How can a mirror be black, when the necessary function of a mirror is to reflect light, reflect a clear image? Black connotes darkness, murkiness, obscurity – hardly the silvery coating of a looking-glass, reflecting the airy features of a Victorian drawing room, or beaming back the blue sky and clouds from the gleaming ceiling of a city office block.

And yet: paradox. The mirror is subverted, turned away from reality into the black chasm we have created in our ultra-mediated lives. Brooker’s series presents a startlingly chilly vision of a near-future society, one where mirrors no longer reflect back on reality, but on representations of reality. The paradox of the real in Brooker’s dystopian vision is that feeling what is real depends more and more on images of the real, rather than experience itself. The most catastrophic events of the show – I’m thinking the bizarre terror of Episode 1, Series 1 where a Prime Minister is led into having intercourse with a farmyard animal, live on TV to the gawping nation – are caused by an overflow of media messages and images, which impact reality in a hyper-real way. In this world, where real events are simulated first in the media, and then permeate reality, reality itself has become its own obscurity; a mise-en-abyme or hall-of-mirrors effect where we are constantly recording, representing and replaying ourselves in the abyss of cyberspace and media technology. A disturbance of the familiar, certainly: a disturbance of the real.

Over thirty years ago, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard made a similar point in his text Simulacra and Simulation. Baudrillard argued that reality was being dissolved into a simulacrum. In past ages, signs had a fixed referent to something real. Yet with the explosion of mass-produced goods, the commodity was born. This relates to Marx’s idea of the ‘commodity fetish’: as goods become mass-marketed, no longer are they bought for their ‘use-value’: when a material item, even something as mundane as a bottle of water, becomes a commodity, it ‘changes into a thing that transcends sensuousness’. Value becomes linked to the product itself, rather than the cost of its production. Sign-value replaces use-value. The value of a bottle of water is linked not to its use-function as a quencher of thirst but because of the shape of the bottle, the style of the branding, the allure of the image portrayed in advertising campaigns. In contemporary society, Baudrillard argues, this has escalated to the point whereby signs and reality have become blurred, replacing a relatively simple distinction between signs and signifieds (the advertisement and the real product, for example) with a ‘simulacrum’: ‘the truth that conceals that there is none’. In the entirety of our experience, meaning and reality have become usurped by a hyper-reality of symbols and signs, which point not to a real object, but to more signs – they conceal the relevance of reality to everyday experience. We are then truly living in an unreal world.

Brooker addresses this idea in the opening episode to Series 2, ‘Be Right Back’. It asks: what happens when the effect of reproduction is enacted upon humans? When the human body and individual personality itself is subjected to fetishism; when the self is fragmented into the myriad traces of text it has trailed in its online life? Jacques Derrida defined the trace as ‘the sign of the presence of an absence’: the uncanny occupation of a liminal position between the real and the imaginary, between the sign and the signified – a rift tearing up the easy system of metaphysics, of our knowledge of what exists, and how.

In Brooker’s fiction (fictional, or half-fictional? Genre itself eludes simple definition – the series lingers between dystopia, horror, realism…hyper-realism), it is possible for a woman to order a cyborg replica of her dead husband. At first, she interacts with an online version rather than a corporeal one. Through instant messenger and phone conversations, she literally contacts her dead husband. And yet it is not really her dead husband, or is it? An assemblage of all the data her social-media-obsessed husband left in traces online, his presence is itself a trace: an uncanny ghost voice constructed from dead voices.

This is the uncanny resonance of the title: ‘be right back’. It hauntingly resonates with the much-used phrase familiar to all users of instant messengers, the signal that one’s physical presence will briefly be absent, although they are not fully ‘gone’ – they haven’t logged offline. ‘Be right back’, you say, when you are going to make a cup of coffee, when you change your status; a signal that your face is no longer behind the screen. ‘Be right back’ is that queer sense of presence/absence that seems to rupture ordinary human interaction, where the interlocutors know each other as corporeal figures and not avatars. The avatar is always present, but it is the mark of an absence: the mark of the speaker’s physical absence. When we talk online, there is always a strangeness, a distance, a whiff of the hyper-real; as if we are playing a game, talking to someone who is quite but not quite the person they are.

Source: m.espn.go.com
Source: m.espn.go.com

When the protagonist takes the next step in ordering the robotic facsimile of her beloved deceased, the strangeness is taken to a whole new level. We have the signs of the commodity fetish: delivered in a box, complete with instruction manual and shiny robotic skin. The human body made perfect, made into product. This of course is not itself an innovation: countless sci-fi books and TV series and films have portrayed the human robot, the automaton. What is particularly intriguing is the reproduction of the dead husband’s personality from text. Not handwriting, not speech, but the representation of voice through text.

At times, the robot’s speech is stunted. He tries his best to say the things that ‘Ash’, the former husband, would say. Yet the robot cannot completely replicate the human. ‘Ash’, as the name suggests, is dust, a powdery scattering of human traces, shimmering in the protagonist’s memory, in the character’s online presence, elusive and ethereal. Perpetually present, but not fully there. The mechanical creation cannot assume the body of the deceased; it can only simulate the fragments of his words. The movement of his face, his eyes, or his synthetic limbs will never wholly replicate what once was there. Ash cannot be resurrected, Ash is ash.

The robot’s automatism is primarily recalled when there is a gap between the woman’s memory of her husband and the robot’s personality. The protagonist is painfully reminded of the fact that it is not a real, living thing – not the warm body she once loved, still loves – but a mechanical product. Watching the woman interact with her robotic husband, touching his flawless synthetic skin, listening to the replicated voice of the deceased – at one point even having sex with him – was a disturbing experience. I felt unsettled; certainly I was experiencing the uncanny. The most carnal of human experiences – actual physical contact – simulated by a robot, with another human, completely explodes all notions of the natural by opening up so many strange possibilities.

Yet, as the show reminds us, technology cannot fully replicate reality. It may attempt to deflect our attention from truth – from the truth of death – with its simulations, but there are always points of rupture, where the fabric of the virtual is torn. At one point, the protagonist experiences distress and asks the robot to leave the room when his words don’t match up to her memory: “Ash would have argued” she says.

This uncertainty about the human and the machine haunts throughout Brooker’s award-winning series. How much of our lives has become merely the voices we leave on answer-phones, in text-messages and Facebook statuses? As communication becomes increasingly mediated, do our personalities become more constructed, more performative? With the advantage of anonymity, or the avatar concealment of the face allowed by the internet, people have time to carefully construct their responses, to portray a certain self-image, to play with the unfamiliar. ‘Be Right Back’ highlights the inadequacy of technology to embody – literally – the highly complex, fractured and fluid nature of the human self. Living more and more online, Black Mirror suggests in general, we creep closer and closer to the edge that demarcates our fundamental perceptions – our notions of truth, reality, existence, humanity itself. Brooker says of his show:

Each episode has a different cast, a different setting, even a different reality. But they’re all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.’

It is this notion of ‘difference’ that creates the uncanny effect. What is the difference between things? The series poses more questions, perhaps, than it answers. Another uncanny effect. Brooker provides multiple possible realities, and thus renders the future with an inherent sense of what Derrida would call ‘undecidability’. It is not like a conventional dystopia, presenting a single, glaring vision warning of the future; instead, it troubles our expectations, it presents numerous ideas of what the next decade, or tomorrow, may hold. The show holds up a mirror to our society, one that is black – foreboding, sinister – and, fundamentally, refracted into different possible outcomes. Yet it is also a void, in the sense that Black Mirror itself is a fiction, where we may lose our sense of the real – collapsing the ever-familiar world of technology portrayed onscreen with our present everyday lives. It is in this threshold between today and tomorrow, between reality and fiction, that Black Mirror lies. And it is in this threshold that we lose our subjectivity, in the overwhelming threat of our own behaviour and the ghostly online world that could collapse our sense of existence.

Works Cited/further reading:

Baudrillard, J. (2006) Simulacra and Simulation, translated by Sheila Faria Glaser, University of Michigan Press.

Bennett, A. and N. Royle (2004) ‘The Uncanny’ in An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory (Harlow: Pearson Education), pp. 34-42.

Black Mirror – Be Right Back [Season 2, Episode 1] by Charlie Brooker.

Felluga, Dino. ‘Modules on Marx: On Fetishism.’ Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Purdue University. Available at: http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/marxism/modules/marxfetishism.html. Accessed 30/4/13.

The Guardian. (2011). Charlie Brooker: the dark side of our gadget addiction. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/dec/01/charlie-brooker-dark-side-gadget-addiction-black-mirror. Last accessed 30/04/13.

Reynolds, J. (2010) ‘Jacques Derrida’. Available at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/derrida/#SH3d. Last accessed 30/04/13.