Dark Ecology and Haunted Technology in Stranger Things

Dark Ecology and Haunted Technology in Stranger Things

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(warning: this essay lacks coherence; think of it more as a wandering, a haunting of deranged, half-baked ideas)

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In our time, the soul has been progressively more materialised. That the soul should now be thought to be, no longer purely immaterial, but constituted from a range of different forms of exotic or tenuous matter is a proof of the necessity of physics for any metaphysics

(Steven Connor, ‘Her Light Materials’).

In her book Phantasmagoria, Marina Warner explores the way in which, from the seventeenth century onwards, we have increasingly relied upon various forms of matter in order to discursively figure the soul: visual apparatuses, natural elements, shadows, reflections, wax and technology are just some of the material modes by which the soul is embodied in the ‘modern’ era. This emphasis on things and substances as they bear forth not only selfhood but also the spiritual manifestation of self is crucial to an ecological understanding of humanity’s vision of itself in a post-industrial age where such substances, through our own actions, have contaminated the earth: the Anthropocene means that our physical activities as humans are literally embedded, embodied and sedimented into the Earth’s geology, ecosystems, climate. In a sense, the human soul, its debris of thingness – whether vaporous or material – is already encrusted within what we can now only tenuously call the environment. For doesn’t an environment presuppose a foreground and background, a subject who inhabits the object(ive) world? What happens when we are the object world? How do we confront the sudden otherness of ourselves, the realisation that we are the earth, and not in some hippie-dippie holism (let’s all hold hands with the animals) but in a frighteningly confrontational reality of material coexistence?

What is striking about Netflix’s Stranger Things is exactly its emphasis on strange things. The suffix draws attention to what we mean by things: who or what are we comparing the stranger things to? Ourselves? The creatures we coexist with, the ones we have already charted, taxonomised, ordered and made familiar through Enlightenment science, zoology and philosophy? How many horror films have we seen where that which is monstrous is not other to us but somehow represents the other within us? As Virginia Woolf said of Henry James’ ghosts: ‘They have their origin within us. They are present whenever the significant overflows our powers of expressing it; whenever the ordinary appears ringed with the strange’ (1921). When what we take as given, as natural or normal–is revealed as inherently disturbed–the boundaries of meaning violently ruptured or haunted, there incurs a fundamental split in what we take to be reality itself. We are forced to question our place in the ‘world’ not just as a human but as a physical subject tout court.

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Screencap: Netflix

The horror genre is notorious for its representation of creatures who challenge our definition of the natural. Timothy Morton says of John Carpenter’s film The Thing: ‘the supposedly horrific alien is none other than the reproductive, simulative process of nature itself’; the Thing is always shifting its guises, ‘destined never to be itself’ (182). This is the dark allure of the popular horror trope of the viral: that which is always shifting, transforming, responding ‘automatically’ (as in Darwinian) to the conditions of its environment. Think of zombie movies, then also the likes of 28 Days Later, I Am Legend and so on—all are obsessed with the idea of infection, the notion that apocalypse will come because the purity of the human soul and body will be corrupted by some alien force.

However, what terrifies about the virus is the realisation that it is inherent in ‘nature’; as Morton argues, what is ‘monstrous’ about evolution, about the growth of plants and other lifeforms, is that DNA itself is viral: [a]ll organisms are monsters insofar as they are chimeras, made from pieces of other creatures’ (2010: 66). Like Victor Frankenstein’s Creature in Mary Shelley’s novel, all lifeforms are hybridised, made from scraps of other beings; though here the product not of Frankenstein’s experiments in vitalism but of evolution’s functional contamination. As with Derrida’s revelation that language, meaning and being have no presence, but only Différance, Darwin’s theory of evolution, as Morton shows, is similarly predicated on slipperiness, fuzziness, contamination. At the core of existence is not essence, but différance, with all its implications of instability, aporia and fragile, mutually infected binaries. Mutation, in a strong sense, is inherent to ‘nature’ – and by no means are humans excluded from this ‘nature’. Not only do we enmesh with the object world in a corporeal sense (our bodies are not bounded but always escape, fragment – the dust of our skin and hair inhabits the atmosphere) but also in the discursive sense, in the way that Warner has traced: in the literary and aesthetic figuring of the soul as a material thing.

Episode Four of Stranger Things is appropriately named ‘The Body’. Looking down at the corpse of her missing child (Will), Joyce (played by that chimera of the Gothic heroine, Winona Ryder) screams, ‘I don’t know what you think that thing in there is, but that is not my son’. What she feels is not grief, but something ‘different’: she is rubbing up against the fragile boundaries of the symbolic order, feeling the metaphysical structures of the world quiver uncannily around her. Later in the episode, we see her other son, Jonathan, weeping in his room to Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’. The lyrics enact an uncanny duality of dialogue: the imperative to ‘walk in silence’ is retracted immediately with ‘don’t walk away, in silence’: the whole song, with its slow, shimmering synths and shuddering drums enacts a play between presence and absence, the corporeal and incorporeal: ‘Naked to see / Walking on air / Hunting by the rivers’. Like The Cure’s ‘A Forest’, there is a maddening sense of pursuit, the lost object dissolving into silence while the mournful subject can only wander through the song in his melancholia, pursuing ‘through the streets’ but only to abandon ‘every corner […] too soon’. There is no closure, only this ‘atmosphere’ of absence sprinkled with the ghostly possibilities of presence elusive.

With Will’s ersatz body we confront the indeterminate state between life and death, the physical remains which should suggest closure and yet speak of something silent, unsayable. What is this strange body cast up before her? Surely not the son, who she is sure is not dead yet, who she has heard calling for her through the telephone…Later, when Hopper, the police chief, takes a knife to the chest of the corpse, he sees it to be synthetic, stuffed like a pillow. Matter contained in matter; this time, not human matter, but simple object matter. We are suddenly pointed to a deeper conspiracy (the Department of Energy and the MK Ultra experiments), but at the same time the suspense of Hopper’s puncturing is playing upon our abject reaction to the corpse as that which contains within it both life and death. What disgusts us in the carving of cadavers is the fact that it is even possible; the tear of the body representing the tear of all we have taken for granted in our usual embodied lives as similar beings, wrapped up in what we thought was the same fabric of reality.

What is uncanny about a human corpse? It reminds us of the presence of death within everyday existence, it shows us, in visceral, stinking, mattering manner, ‘what I permanently thrust aside in order to live’ – it is ‘death infecting life’ (Kristeva 1982: 3). Stranger Things is obsessed with appearance and reality, with the hidden networks of existence which haunt the outward façade of daily life in small-town Indiana. As the title suggests, part of this interplay of appearance and reality is the necessary strangeness of things: not just the gory, pulp-horror monsters that haunt our nightmares but the strangeness of all we take for granted as normal—the family home, the general ‘good’ of the government’s intentions and the rule of the law; the clear boundary between life and death, presence and absence, self and other. We might think of Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet (1986), bending down in the lush green grass of a suburban garden to lift that grotesque, insect-swarmed severed ear from the ground: the sudden onrush of magnified sound that signals our entrance into the underworld, the seedy, violent and parallel reality which exists aside our everyday lives. This essay will attempt an exploration of sorts into Stranger Thing’s heart of darkness: its uncanny depiction of the interrelations between bodies, technologies and nature, the living and the dead.

My central focus will concern how ethereal, inter-worldly transmission is figured through technology and also how its representation of abjection and the viscous, sticky enmeshment of the Upside-Down contributes to a renewed understanding of what constitutes such taken-for-granted things as nature, environment, world. I will argue that the show’s obsession with death as an ontological condition and its depiction of both communication and rupture is not just a parable of Cold War paranoia over the presence of the (Communist) Other within, but also challenges the ethics and poetics of how we approach the non-human Other in the context of late capitalism, i.e. ecological crisis and technological modernity.

One of the most terrifying aspects of the Monster/Creature/Demogorgon is its lack of a face; the fact that it cannot return the gaze of its onlookers, who can only look into the void of its flesh and see substance, reminding them that they too are substance—that the boundary between the human and monstrous is decidedly fragile. The Dementors in Harry Potter are similarly frightening because they lack eyes: where the eyes should be, the sockets are covered over with scabby, corpse-like skin. In Neil Gaiman’s children’s novella, Coraline, in the parallel, looking-glass world that Coraline finds ‘through the door’, her Other Mother and Other Father seem physically identical to their originals, except that their eyes have been replaced with black buttons. Freud famously outlined his theory of the uncanny through a close reading of E. T. A. Hoffman’s ‘The Sandman’ (1816), a dark Germanic fable about a creature who visits children and tears out their eyes. Freud very cleverly links the fear of blindness back to castration anxiety, but for my purposes, the uncanniness of losing one’s sight is partly due to perception itself. If our eyes are associated with discerning the real world of impressions around us, how can we without them tell if we are living in reality?

Moreover, when we encounter creatures without eyes, what are we to make of their consciousness? If eyes are ‘windows to the soul’ as the saying goes, can there be a soul without eyes? Coexistence can happen on an intelligible level if the animal can return our gaze: Derrida, in ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, has written about his experience of being looked at and looking back at the animal, namely, his cat staring in confusion at his naked body; and we have all had a moment of silent exchange with a stranger’s pet, eyes meeting by chance perhaps but lingering…and in that lingering is the suggestion of an understanding between species, the troubling of notions of inside/outside, human/nonhuman.

Yet how do we interact with a creature who cannot return the gaze? A thing without facial features is ontologically unstable somehow, unable to establish presence through meaningful expression: ‘the phantasm is the sign of that visible incorporeality. The image I see returns as both the spectral figure of myself as other, and yet also it figures in its return the immanence of my disappearance’ (Dick and Wolfreys 2015: 139). Could we relate this ‘visible incorporeality’ to the Creature of Stranger Things? It is certainly figured as corporeal, as Nancy and Jonathan embark on a hunting mission to slay it like any old dragon or wildebeest, but then again, it is not of our world – it comes from the other place, the Upside-Down. Seeing the Creature, the characters are faced with its impossibility, which in turn incurs an ontological rupture whereby they themselves witness the flashing vanishing of matter. Barb’s sudden disappearance, for instance: the play of sensory impressions that distorts all sense of space and time in the woods.

Significantly, the Creature is not the only ‘monster’ that haunts Stranger Things. Throughout the show, El is in a sense a ‘monstrous’ figure. Her origins are unknown. Stripped of hair, with a boyish figure, she maintains an androgynous appearance; the boys’ attempts to prettify her with a wig and makeup enact a bizarre transformation which only serves to heighten her strangeness, as she appears more doll-like, the sudden deliberation of her actions running uncannily counter to her appearance, which would be that of an automaton if she were a living doll (or indeed, the escaped hospital patient possibility suggested by her bald scalp and hospital gown). Her fate, like Safie in Frankenstein (who provides a parallel figure of exile for the Creature, welcomed with hospitality while he is crudely expelled from the De Lacey home) seems inextricably tied up with that of the Creature: in the final episode, its vanishing at the command of her telekinesis simultaneously enacts her own vanishing from the concrete world of the boys and the classroom. It might’ve been interesting to make the Creature a more sympathetic life form, rather than a screaming reaction of base violence which actively preys on humans, just to give some extra ambiguity to the order of things; but even so, it’s still possible to have some sympathy for the Demogorgon (and not just because it seems the live manifestation of a beloved strategy game)—after all, it represents ‘nature’ in all its savage instincts, linking back to what I was saying earlier about monstrosity and evolution.

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Screen cap: Netflix

In order to defeat the Creature, to seek out Will in the Upside-Down, El has to recreate the sensory deprivation experiments which were conducted upon her in the Department of Energy lab. Floating in the water, she appears Christ-like, as if her soul must endure the rituals of crucifixion in order to bring back Will from the Upside-Down (symbolic immersion?). Like Nancy, she is deathly thin, her physical presence pale against the strong personalities of the male characters. Her corporeal existence is almost shimmering: she is slow at first, learning words and meanings, piecing things together. Not only does this emphasise the shock of her telekinetic powers, but also it sediments the show’s strange interplay between the ethereal and material.

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Spilt blood…Screen cap: Netflix

Stranger Thing’s preoccupation with eating is one manifestation of this. It’s all very Freudian. Jonathan makes eggs for his mother and tries to get her to eat. Arguments occur round the family dinner table. In the Upside-Down, Nancy sees the Creature feeding on a deer and realises its attraction to spilt blood. The cadaverous El is always ravenous and is frequently seen eating. In fact, at one point she blithely steals frozen waffles from a supermarket and devours them in the woods. Food is a prominent symbol in fairytales. Food, of course, is closely related to abjection. Fundamentally, the digestion and excretion of food reminds us that we are part of an enmeshment of material things; unfortunately, we cannot transcend the flesh prison which sustains our beautiful souls…Kristeva’s description of the abject reaction of food disgust is worth quoting in full, as her sentences gather a certain pace that mimics the physical spasms of reaction, the desire to expel the self in the experience of disgust from the food object which reminds us that we too are bodies, layered and soft and mortal:

Food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection. When the eyes see or the lips touch that skin on the surface of milk—harmless, thin as a sheet of cigarette paper, pitiful as a nail paring—I experience a gagging sensation and, still farther down, spasms in the stomach, the belly; and all the organs shrivel up the body, provoke tears and bile, increase heartbeat, cause forehead and hands to perspire. Along with sight-clouding dizziness, nausea makes me balk at that milk cream, separates me from the mother and father who proffer it. “I” want none of that element, sign of their desire; “I” do not want to listen, “I” do not assimilate it, “I” expel it. But since the food is not an “other” for “me,” who am only in their desire, I expel myself. I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which “I” claim to establish myself. That detail, perhaps an insignificant one, but one that they ferret out, emphasise, evaluate, that trifle turns me inside out, guts sprawling; it is thus that they see that “I” am in the process of becoming an other at the expense of my own death. During that course in which “I” become, I give birth to myself amid the violence of sobs, of vomit.

(Kristeva 1982: 2-3)

The inside-out unsheathing of the body and its skin (the skin of flesh, the flesh of food) mirrors the Upside-Down Alice in Wonderland reversal and parallel convergence of realities. There is always a reversal, another possible surface. The mutation. Nothing is stable but always in movement. The spasms here mirror the shrieking of the self in the grip of grief: in Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer’s mother shrieking in hysteria; in Stranger Things, Joyce Byers rattling with terror as she storms around her own home, trying to find her lost son. The psychosexual implications of Kristeva’s passage are also relevant to Stranger Things because, let’s face it, there is something womblike and vaginal about the viscous, flora-infested environment of the Upside-Down, its gross and mollusc-like mucus and glistening ectoplasm. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Nancy loses her virginity the same night that her best friend Barb is sucked into that orifice-like portal of the monstrous feminine, the gooey nether-zone where she will find herself woven into the lining, her body penetrated by the infestations of disgusting slug and snake-like creatures. Like Cinderella, Barb pricks her finger (though on a crunched beer can, not a spindle) and is doomed to some sort of eternal sleep.

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Screen cap: Netflix

At one point in the show, one of the lab workers enters the portal in the Department of Energy and despite clinging to a rope, is irrevocably drawn into the depths, never to see the light of day again as the mouth of the portal closes. There’s the whole vagina dentata (religious myth of the toothed vagina) psychoanalytic strand here which would be interesting to pursue, especially as the implications of castration anxiety connect back to the Creature’s missing eyes/face. As in Twin Peaks, the portal to the other world (Black Lodge) will only open under certain conditions. With Kristeva’s passage on the skin of milk, we can think about how the entrance to the Upside-Down is itself an instance of abjection: the expelling of bodies and matter between worlds. The inside is clearly toxic as the lab workers don protective suits to enter; there is even a suggestion of the post-nuclear landscape in the way that an ash-like matter floats in the atmosphere, again fitting in with the monstrous nature/alien space theme.

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Screen cap: Netflix

As Nancy tumbles out from the forest portal (housed inside a tree), sticky with all the weird stuff that comes off the world’s ‘lining’, she is quivering with terror in a manner reminiscent of Kristeva in the rejection of the milk. Freud theorised that young boys were scared of their mothers due to the fear she would castrate them, and maybe there’s a reading that the whole show is some phantasmagoric, dreamlike manifestation of the terror of the overbearing ‘hysteric’ mother (Joyce). The winding strands of plant-like matter, snake-like and strange, are reminiscent too of Medusa’s head. Freud has a whole essay, ‘Medusa’s Head’ (1922), on the possibility/implications of Medusa’s head taking ‘the place of a representation of female genitals, or rather if it isolates their horrifying effects from their pleasure-giving ones is familiar in other connections as an apotropaic act’—namely, the commitment of evil. Interesting how Stranger Things teases with the gendering here: the male-dominated U.S. Government vs. monstrous feminine nature – which is more evil? Science or the (super)natural? I think the Alien films are probably the most obvious Stranger Things intertext here, but the very fact that the show wears its myriad influences on its sleeve creates a web-like structure of inference that opens itself up to multiple readings that cut across the cultural timelines of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, spreading out monstrously, contaminating discourses both pop cultural and scientific.

The show plays constantly with this weirdly distorted womb/plant/viscous/genitals imagery and I can’t help but think perhaps it represents some kind of monstrous mother nature, the vengeance of the earth against the interfering experiments with time-space enacted by the US Government and its Department of Energy… Hyperobjects like global warming, plutonium and oil slicks are defined partly by their viscosity: ‘the more you know about a hyperobject, the more entangled with it you realise you already are’ (Morton 2010a). The more we as viewers learn about the strange world of the Upside-Down, the more we see it in our own reality. Monstrous, oozing nature. Ourselves in the mirror: the strange stranger – the notion that the closer we get to other life forms, the weirder they become (Morton 2010b: 17). The constant recurrence of floods and hurricanes and melting ice caps, irrevocably now understood as the consequences of global warming: they acquire an almost anthropomorphised monstrosity.

At the end of the series, Will, restored to apparent ‘reality’ (signified by that most traditional of temporal markers, perhaps the most important date in the calendar, Christmas Day), coughs up a slug-like creature and once again glimpses the Upside-Down again, flashing through the palimpsest surface of the normal world, reminding us of the imprint of the ecological uncanny, the presence of the strange, nonhuman other, within ourselves. I am struck with a line from Coleridge’s poem, ‘The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere’ (1798), where, after facing the nightmare wrath of the storms following his shooting of the albatross (the fatal crime against ‘nature’), the mariner glimpses the gross multitudes of sea-snakes in the ocean below his boat, shimmering among the floating corpses of his fellow sailors, lost to the storm: ‘And they all dead did lie! / And a million million slimy things / Liv’d on – and so did I’. The mushy consonance of the l sounds here recreates the oozing viscosity of all those wriggling bodies, but there is a sense in which the mariner seems to revel in the sheer multitude of these ‘million million slimy things’, as the repetition suggests—their individuality as types of species is beyond his grasp and he can only face them as a kind of hyperobject, the sharp realisation following the caesura (-) indicating the revelation of coexistence, which is both wondrous and terrifying.

Indeed, there’s something about El’s telekinetic powers too, the way they can elasticate reality, bending objects and shattering matter, but at the expense of something inside her, the price of the blood that oozes from her nose each time, signifying her depleted energy. She is no robot, but material and mortal too: the recurrence of the blood and its spilling viscosity insists on this. El’s ‘magic’ enacts a disruption of foreground and background; we cannot just perceive it as magic, for we have witnessed its basis in a kind of scientific experiment within the labs. It comes out of the world, disrupts the subject. Stranger Things is rife with pathetic fallacy – storms and power blackouts – and this isn’t just a contribution to the horror mood but also an underlining of the show’s ecological context and monstrosity: the collapse of weather as mere background, stage-setting, into the narrative itself (the significance of electricity in the show is still to be traced) signals the impossibility of the world as such. ‘We have no world,’ as Morton so aptly puts it, ‘because the objects that functioned as invisible scenery have dissolved’ (2013: 104). What happens when you think through the world as the world, rather than from an anthropocentric viewpoint? Peter Watts has written a short story titled ‘The Things’ which reverses the perspective of Carpenter’s movie, this time telling the story from the virus’ point of view (note the plural things and think back to the mutational plurality/chains of the virus)—once again, disruption of subject/object ordering. What is an alien consciousness? What is nature’s consciousness? The only way we can find out is by recognising nature’s strangeness, and that strangeness is inherently within us too. In Stranger Things, the dissolution of objects is part of the show’s exploration of the uncanny (walls and doors shift, ooze, open and close) in relation to the monstrous (and this is rooted in other themes beyond the scope of my essay; for example, the nuclear family and adolescent sexuality), but also the monstrosity of nature enacting its gross and terrible vengeance against man’s interference: El, little pixie child of the forest as she becomes, is able to manipulate objects, thus denying their status as mere staging and indeed staging them as vitalist forces in themselves (so far, so Object Orientated Ontology?).

On the subject of ‘energy’ and electricity it isn’t just El’s psychic energy and the deceptive title of the ‘Department of Energy’ that resonates in Stranger Things. ‘Energy’ also points us to the vitalist elements of Stranger Things; namely, its interest in the networked relations between humans and technology, the way that communication and transmission rupture not only the fleshly interaction of humans but also the metaphysical boundaries between life and death. For starters, there’s the song played against the opening title: New Order’s ‘Elegia’. What first struck me about this track was the dissonant synths, the way they creep up on you in mesmerising waltz-time, the guitars, piano and synths enveloping one another in counterpoint melodies. NME tells me that the song was written as a tribute to Ian Curtis and it’s almost impossible to listen to the 18-minute track, whose elegiac status is inscribed in the very title, and not think of absence, death, the plunge into void, the journey through its swirling, miasma-like movements which render eerie and maybe even ‘inhuman’ our experience of temporality. Before this contextual note, however, I was weirdly reminded of ‘Lavender Town Syndrome’: the 1990s internet myth surrounding the music from Pokemon Red and Green. The MIDI track from this particular town is indeed extremely jarring, run on two channels so that the sound travels literally through one ear and out of the other and thus fusing in the brain to create a certain sonic effect. There were rumours that this effect caused suicides and seizures until the MIDI track was ‘tamed’ for the American version.

While the story was more or less sheer internet rumour, it’s still provocative and raises questions about the ghostliness (or, as Warner might put it, phantasmagoria) provoked by the phantasmic structures of media technology. Aphex Twin, for example, embedding a spectrograph image inside an audio file, the implications of such a shape upon sound: screeching, searing static. The sound of a ghost trapped in a glitch world? If the glitch is an accident, then what is a ghost? An accident of time and space, trapped in the in-between, reminding us of the fragility of time-space itself? Of being itself? Sound, after all, is temporal; a MIDI track is self-containing in its temporality. You can loop it, but it has a form and a shape, a beginning and ending. Does the ghost have a beginning and ending? When I listen to the original Lavender Town track, I can definitely feel a kind of fuzziness or vibration in my brain, as if the frequencies of my thought were suddenly being played upon, synapses twisted and twanged as if in electro-convulsive therapy; or like the sensory experiments upon the brain portrayed in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and indeed in Stranger Things, inspired by the psychedelic investigations of the 1960s and 70s, name-checked in the show as ‘MK Ultra’ – incidentally, also the title of one of Muse’s most politically paranoid songs. An early configuration of this could be the Romantic Aeolian harp, which represented the mutual ‘play’ of sound, expression, music, poetry and impressions between the world and the artistic mind (see Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’). What these aural effects again reinforce is the dissolving of subject/object, as sounds from the so-called ‘environment’ feed into our brains, penetrate the boundaries of the self and flesh and in doing so enact a kind of digital Heideggarian poeisis, wherein the arrangement of sound itself (like words on the page of a poem), causes something to actually happen, to come into being. What is this being? The experience of terror, a sudden rupture of consciousness as the soundwaves pulse through the brain? Sensation, in its flux, placing us under erasure, as we fall away from consciousness? Where are we now, reaching back for the material symbols of the soul that would save us from the sea of dissonant, consuming music? Stranger Things evokes a rich sonic atmosphere, full of grotesque, squelchy, pulsing, oozing, insect-esque sound effects which trickle the presence of monstrous nature, of the metaphysical strangeness of the Upside-Down and its plant-like materials, straight into our brain.

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Jonathan’s photography. Screen cap: Netflix

Attached to the auditory is the technological unfolding of the visual. Throughout the series, photography plays a significant role in the identification of the beast/creature. Following the scopophilic power of the male gaze (and of course another Blue Velvet reference is inevitable here, Jeffrey peeking through the closet at the acts of domestic sexual violence), Jonathan sneaks into the woods to take photos of Steve’s party, snapping pictures of Nancy for whom he harbours a secret desire/teenage love. Yet what remains in the photos isn’t just the form of his beloved, but the strange shape of the beast, captured indelibly in the developed ink:

Photography is a mode of tekhnē – a making appear (technology “makes” something “appear” out of parts, raw materials; it is thus the truth of the physical world; we make, we cause to appear things, commodities, but what does photography make appear? Images made of shadows, light and dark – in this it causes to appear an event no longer there, no longer with us; it gives us to see what we cannot otherwise see.

(Dick and Wolfreys 260)

There is a sense in which photography is, like the New Order track, inherently elegiac—or at the very least, represents the flicker between presence and absence, since the material presence of the photograph is haunted by the absence of what it represents, the not-there, the once-happened. As in the play of light and dark, positive and negative space, the photograph captures the liminal position between presence and absence, matter and ethereality. It is thus, as Barthes shows in Camera Lucida ( 1980), a medium closely associated with death. The shape of the beast is barely distinguishable in the photograph, especially with the added layer of another camera, and the computer screen through which we stream the Netflix content of Stranger Things itself. The temporality of the photograph is thus strangely ephemeral, despite its suggestion of a ‘snapshot’, a reification or fixing of the moment. There is a ghostliness to the photo: ‘it bears witness where there is no witness’ (Dick and Wolfreys 2015: 261); it reduplicates the sense of presence as reading the image bears another kind of birth, the control of the eye/I at the focal point in another space of time which is always overtaken by the image and its embodiment of another time–the displacing and shifting incurring is a kind of haunting.

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Laura Palmer’s homecoming photo from Twin Peaks

Think of Twin Peaks, another series whose entire plot hinges on absence, namely, the death of its main character, Laura Palmer, which occurs before the show’s diegetic action even begins. Laura’s absence is primarily signified by the presence of her prom queen portrait photograph, which occupies not only the mantelpiece of the Palmer home but also the end credits of every episode. Played over with the melancholy Angelo Badalamenti score, the picture serves to remind us of the presence of Laura as narrative phantasm, the way that the absent/dead Cathy and Heathcliff haunt Nelly’s recollected narrative in Wuthering Heights. 

Ghosts, then, are not just the creaky ghouls of Gothic castles, but instead are inextricably linked to the replicating capacities of technology and indeed narrative itself as a medium of recalling some thing or person or event, thereby disruptively evoking the past in the present, disturbing presence itself. As Derrida puts it:

Contrary to what we might believe, the experience of ghosts is not tied to a bygone historical period, like the landscape of Scottish manors, etc., but … is accentuated, accelerated by modern technologies like film, television, the telephone. These technologies inhabit, as it were, a phantom structure…When the very first perception of an image is linked to a structure of reproduction, then we are dealing with the realm of phantoms.

(Derrida 1989: 61)

In addition to photography, electricity and telephone communication are prominent mediums through which the ghostly is figured in Stranger Things. Joyce starts to hear Will calling to her through electricity—through the lamps and electric lights strung up in her home. She answers the telephone and hears his voice through the ambient rasping, and we can hear glimpses of that gooey, squelching monster sound. She literally rips the telephone out the wall trying to get back to him, causing another spatial rupture in the material world which started with the ephemeral, the sound of the phone call. Her makeshift séance codex constructed out of letter posters and the flashing bulbs of fairy lights renders literally the evocation of the dead through writing, the Derridean play of presence and absence which dissolves subjectivity in the space between speech and writing. Here Will can only communicate by flashing the lights, so that his presence is available only through the transmission of a kind of Morse code. At the end of episode two, as Joyce tries to navigate the suddenly terrifying environment of her home, seeking the source of the noise and of Will’s possible voice, the soundtrack, heard by us and by Joyce through the walls, is the Clash’s ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ – a song which ironically renders the subject’s lingering on the threshold between going and staying, presence and absence. Joyce’s discovery of the song playing on the stereo as if by magic is uncanny because the familiar song becomes wrenched from its normal experience and is here recontextualised as extremely disturbing and perhaps even tragic, the flicker and stutter of its playback following the jilted rhythms of a voice, a soul, a subject, trying to pierce through some unseen border, to transmit signals to his mother.

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Phantasmagoria…Screen cap: Netflix

At one point, Joyce gets so far as to catch a glimpse of her son through the wall which becomes a glass screen, but soon he vanishes, the wall returns to being a wall that is now smashed and the daylight is beaming through, reminder of the permeability of all borders, the fragile boundaries of the home. When the estranged husband, father of Will, comes to visit, he makes attempts to patch up the physical confines of the home, but this patriarchal intrusion of order and reparation of stability does little to stabilise the spirits of the house: the invasive Creature, which howls in the wall, and Will, who calls through the lights.

What we get is a sense of Joyce’s claustrophobic mania, her absolute loneliness as she desperately tries to seek out signs of her son’s presence. Jonathan makes attempts to help her, to make her breakfast and be strong for her, but he too prefers to retire to his room and listen to his new wave melancholia, eyes transfixed on the constant whorl of the tape spools. As Joyce fashions a codex for communication, I think back to the idea of writing itself as a kind of call. In writing, the self dissolves, is irrevocably split (so far, so Lacan), but the same is true of speech:

[…] we come to apprehend a ghostly structure at work, which informs the condition of being human, and with that all forms, instances, possibilities of communication between the self and the other, the host and the guest or ghost, the living and the dead. Even if no one has said anything to me, when I begin to write, or when I start talking – to give a lecture, or in a seminar – what I call “my” words, arrive as a response to some unheard, but nonetheless persistent call […]

(Dick and Wolfreys 2015: 28).

There is, then, an uncanny disruption of subjectivity within the voice itself, a spacing of difference and deferral. Whose words am I speaking? In the experience of hearing Will’s voice, we undergo the creepy realisation of his presence penetrating the possibilities of time/space (how can you speak from the realm of the dead?) at the same time of the technological reproduction of his voice adding another layer of ‘removal’, of phantasmagoric embodiment to Will’s ‘self’ or indeed ‘soul’.

I would argue that the show’s real obsession is not with Cold War governmental conspiracy, but with transmission and networks. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on how Tom McCarthy’s novel C (2010) approaches the discourse networks of twenty-first century internet and wireless technology by representing the wireless networks of the early twentieth century’s radio communication, in doing so carving out a media archaeological approach to literature and theory that renders the always-already status of subjectivity and human communication as a form of transmission, indelibly connected to texts and technics. McCarthy’s protagonist, Serge, tunes into the radio frequently, but even as he listens to a gramophone, the unravelling distortions of his dead sister’s voice tune into his brain through a psychoanalytic panoply of incest, desire and technological anamnesis:

The cylinders and discs are still there. When he plays them now, her voice attaches itself, leech-like, to the ones recorded in them – tacitly, as though laid down in the wax and shellac underneath these voices, on a lower stratum: it flashes invisibly within these crackles, slithers through the hisses of their silence.

(McCarthy 2010: 78)

Here the material paraphernalia of the gramophone has the effect of a medium in the telekinetic sense of communing with the dead; only Serge never speaks back, he only listens. The leech-like imagery conjured here, with the slithery plurality of voices, the intrusion of external sounds (‘these crackles’) recalls the slimy imagery of Coleridge’s water-snakes and indeed the Upside-Down: these are parts of ‘the world’ of matter that cannot be elided, that flicker in the strange temporal space which technologically carves out (in its ‘archaeological’ and reproductive function) between life and death. Sophie, the dead sister, returns as material detritus, reminding us again of our enmeshment (here physical embedding) within the material world. As the ‘wax and shellac’ score ‘these voices’, Warner’s figuring of the phantasmagoria of the soul appears again: the soul is here literally materialised, but only as recollected fragments. This is an ecological point in the sense that it underscores our dependence on the matter of technics as an entry point into being, since memory is crucial for our sense of selfhood, its recollection the temporal play that brings a sense of presence—of duration and continuity, though predicated on movement and the spacing of image and sound, the material, sensory forms taken by memory. There is something in this inherently connecting the child and the technological machine. Perhaps it is because children are closely associated with futurity, and their death (living on only in memory fragments) uncannily disrupts our sense of the linear ‘order’ of things. Perhaps also because of the history of the technical media itself:

As the literary critic Laurence Rickels points out, the technical media first create these children – “create” in the sense of constituting them as modern subjects by inscribing them across their wax- and nitrate-plated surfaces, framing them within their boxed walls – then, once the children are dead, provide the mausoleums they inhabit. “Every point of contact between a body and its media extension,” he goes on to argue, “marks the site of some secret burial.

(McCarthy, Tom 2012)

Will’s friends try to reach out to him by playing with the Ham radio at school, eventually getting through to him from the Upside-Down and in the process exploding the equipment. Is this burst of flames the violent rupture of the Real, another signal that the boundaries of the symbolic and indeed metaphysical order are being ruptured? The revenge of physics against a narrative of possible mysticism? When El encounters the spooky Russian man upon one of her sensory deprivation trips, he is muttering random words which sound like a radio transmission. El herself is a transmitter. She is the explosive node in the network which opened up the gateway between the ‘real world’ and the Upside-Down. In a kind of re-imagining of Donnie Darko, the boys question their science teacher on the multiple worlds theorem, and I have tried to read up on the physics and relativity theory but my poor wee humanities brain can’t quite hold it all together. Still, the idea of multiple worlds implies being as becoming. There cannot be stable presence, singular origin of selfhood, when multiple possibilities can coexist…I think of the protagonist of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) tearing at the grotesque yellow wallpaper as if seeking for the opening, the wound in the fabric of reality, which would let out that terrible voice, the face that she sees in the multiplicities of arabesques, which perhaps are not that unlike the floral arabesques of the green, ivy-like winds of the Upside-Down’s ‘lining’, hungry as fly-eating succulents in the greenhouse of Hell…

There are times when the absent/spirit/representational world ruptures into reality. This is the terror of Lavender Town Syndrome. Pokémon Go literally makes a game out of it, by placing Pokémon to be caught within the cartographies of ‘real’ space. We are obsessed with this slippage of the real and the illusory as palimpsests, where sometimes elements of each world slip through to the next. Slender Man, which grew out of an internet myth, the placing of a ghostly trace figure within digitally-manipulated photographs, flowered as if by evolutionary monstrosity into an elaborate urban legend. Breaking the fourth wall, two 12-year-old girls from Wisconsin have been charged with first-degree attempted homicide for trying to stab their friend to death, citing the demands of Slender Man as the cause of their actions. The blur between fiction and fact stares us straight in the face of this real-world ‘tragedy’. Was Slender Man ‘real’ if the girls truly believed in him and acted on accord of his illusory voice? What are the ethical implications of this infiltration of myth narrative within our phenomenological experience of the world? Often, we see the characters seeing the Creature more than we see the Creature (for example, when Barb is attacked at the poolside), and could this relational depiction of terror be a way of drawing us in further to a shared ontological understanding of the pervasiveness of the monstrous, rather than merely a cheap horror movie trick aimed at suspense? Isn’t suspense itself a disruptive force, holding hostage the linear ideology of progress in favour of the rhythm of the ‘shock’ which loops back into the past and halts the present?

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Facing the limits of space-time…Ashes to Ashes. Image source: jimcofer.com

In his book Haunted Media, Jeffrey Sconce eloquently explores how television came to be figured as uncanny, as the interconnecting medium between multiple worlds. The medium itself seemed to embody a hauntological structure, with the appearance of television ‘ghosts’, whereby wispy doubles of the actual figures onscreen cast a spectral aura around their ‘real’ counterparts: ‘not so much as shadows, but as disembodied echoes seemingly from another plane or dimension’ (Sconce 124). The combination of sound and image thus proliferates the ghostly possibilities of reproduction. The BBC series’ Life on Mars and its sequel, Ashes to Ashes take this to its logical extreme by exploring television as a medium for transmission across time and space. The central characters wake up in a parallel reality where they have a similar job only they have gone back in time by several decades, forced to work on police cases which will have ramifications for the future and indeed cases whose origins are the source-code for events already experienced in the characters’ present-moment temporalities. A whole other essay is required for analysing the complex play between technology, ontological instability, nostalgia and memory here (as well as comparative police culture!); but I can briefly say that, as in McCarthy’s novel, the exploration of past technologies is often used as a way of commenting on the present.

Moreover, the figuring of technology’s ‘ether’ connects to the metaphysics of the series itself, as we gradually discover more of the mechanics of time and space within Life on Mars and even more so on Ashes to Ashes. At the start of each episode of Life on Mars comes the refrain: ‘My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident and woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever’s happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet.’ If the past seems like a ‘different planet’, then we are always-already inherently split: are our former selves and the lives we lead and have led fundamentally alien, as soon as they have happened? We gradually discover that the world inhabited by the ‘past’ characters (as opposed to the twenty-first century present) is a limbo of sorts, and this is revealed as characters start to glimpse aporetic fragments of starry ‘space’ towards the end of Ashes to Ashes. Like Joyce piercing through some dimension in her ripping holes in the wall, these characters uncover the stage-setting of the world around them. Space is figured as space in the physical sense (galaxies of matter) but also in the textual sense of rupture, pause, gaps in representation. No system is bounded or closed. There is a sense of the lost future, that which was snatched away from the dead, though lies still in its imminence. An elegiac sense of the stars, as often we perceive the dead as stars (which are themselves dead suns, and once again that idea of the flickering of light/shadow, presence/absence…). But also, the star spaces as portal/threshold, reminding us of the tangible and perhaps even elastic physical and ethereal spaces. What is it that calls us to open the door, to step forth? Upon what authority? Is it the voice within the self, irrevocably spilt as uncannily other? How does El vanish through the blackboard, along with the Creature? We are drawn to the liminal as we are drawn to the abject, precisely because there is a recognition of the enmeshment of things (Morton’s dark ecology) and the gaps in the web fascinate our sense of being as living species in relation to all other categories of being: the nonhuman, the (super)natural, the living and dead. In Life on Mars and indeed many other literary or dramatic representations of uncanny technology and its transmissions, these metaphysical hauntings are linked to the structural effects of television itself:

The introduction of electronic vision brought with it intriguing new ambiguities of space, time, and substance: the paradox of visible, seemingly material worlds trapped in a box in the living room and yet conjured out of nothing more than electricity and air. […] Unnervingly immediate and decidedly more tangible, the “electronic elsewhere” generated by television was thus more palpable and yet every bit as phantasmic the occult empires of previous media.’

 (Jeffrey Sconce 2000: 126)

What is the effect of watching television in the perpetual present enabled by the internet? The browse-all, constantly-refreshed interface of Netflix? There is an added layer of immediacy which renders the nostalgic 1980s setting of shows like Ashes to Ashes (which isn’t on Netflix by the way, last time I checked) and Stranger Things even stranger, like we are reaching through a portal upon our return to their ontologically-distorted worlds. The representation of now-disused technologies as uncanny, their transmissions disturbing and problematic, prompts reflection on our contemporary digital condition. Elizabeth Bridges sums this up perfectly:

Stranger Things gets the fact that silence feels uncanny in 2016, that a lack of noise and flashing screens makes people anxious now, that it feels…. off, eerily desolate. The jolt of a ringing phone amidst a sea of silence seems jarring for us in a way that it would not have felt in 1983. Oddly normal moments in this series make us jump out of our skin.

(Bridges 2016)

Our present condition, the always-on, archiving-on-the-fly status of digital and portable media, renders the world of constantly disrupted communication even more strange. There is another level of disconnection, a rupture in the present, the shock of a telephone ringing. When was the last time your house phone went off when you were at home alone? The human voice recorded seems strangely anachronistic now, a product of lost time; I can’t recall the last time I made a voicemail message, or even listened to one. There’s something about the recorded voice, floating out there in the ether…the sound of the answer machine, the creepy litany, please hang up and try again, in crisply forgotten Queen’s English…

There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated.

 (Kristeva 1982: 1)

Perhaps it is not the conspiracy theories or the paranoid Cold War plots or the violence that frighten us. Perhaps it is the mediums of transmission themselves, carrying wave upon wave of voices, disembodied, from different times and dimensions, bearing the abject realities which render the folds in the fabric of our being, the slippages between past/future, self/other, subject/object and life and death itself…Perhaps all technological recordings mark a death of sorts, a vital split between the transmitting subject and the transmitted object. That is the technological uncanny, and its violation of foreground and background is what draws us back into the enmeshment of a dark ecological awareness, the sense of the importance of things—the understanding that we too, as humans, are things

Bibliography

Barthes, Roland, 1980. Camera Lucida (Hill and Wang).

Bridges, Elizabeth, 2016. ‘The Perils of Childhood – Stranger Things, Season 1’ <http://uncannyvalley.us/2016/07/stranger-things-season-1/&gt; [Accessed 11.10.16].

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, 1798. The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere, in Seven Parts. <http://www.rc.umd.edu/sites/default/RCOldSite/www/rchs/reader/rime4.html> [Accessed 11.10.16].

Connor, Stephen, 2006. ‘Her Light Materials’ <http://stevenconnor.com/phantasmagoria.html&gt; [Accessed 11.10.16].

Creed, Barbara, 1993. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge).

Derrida, Jacques, 1982. ‘Différance’ in Margins of Philosophy, trans. by Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), pp. 3-27.

Derrida, Jacques, 1989. The Ghost Dance: An Interview with Jacques Derrida by Mark Lewis and Andreas Payne, trans. by Jean-Luc Svoboda (Public, 2).

Derrida, Jacques, 2002. ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow), trans. by David Wills, in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 2, pp. 369-418.

Dick, Maria-Daniella and Julian Wolfreys, 2015. The Derrida Wordbook (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).

Kristeva, Julia, 1982. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press).

McCarthy, Tom, 2010. C (London: Vintage).

McCarthy, Tom,  2012b. Transmission and the Individual Remix: How Literature Works, [Kindle edition; accessed: 23.8.14] (London: Vintage Digital).

Morton, Timothy, 2007. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics

Morton, Timothy, 2010a. ‘Hyperobjects are Viscous’, Ecology Without Nature <http://ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/hyperobjects-are-viscous.html&gt; [Accessed 11.10.16].

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

Morton, Timothy, 2013. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (Posthumanities) (University of Minnesota Press).

Sconce, Jeffrey, 2000. Haunted Media: Electronic presence from Telegraphy to Television (London: Duke University Press).

Shelley, Mary, 2009 [1818 edition]. Frankenstein (Oxford: Oxford World Classics).

Warner, Marina, 2006. Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors and Media into the Twenty-First Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Watts, Peter, ‘The Things’, Clarkesworld Magazine <http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/watts_01_10/> [Accessed 11.10.16].

Woolf, Virginia, 1921. ‘Henry James’ Ghost Stories’, The Times Literary Supplement, No. 1040, 22nd December, pp. 849-50.

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Screen cap: Netflix

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.

The Dreaded Dissertation: What I Learned

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It’s that little thing at the back of every undergraduate arts student’s mind: the dreaded dissertation. You find yourself at a Fresher’s Fair in the grand halls of some ancient university, poring over a prospectus for your dream course. There’s that word ‘Assessment’ and then, if you follow down the page, the words ‘Senior Honours’ and ‘Dissertation’. The percentage, length and allotted time period will vary between universities and courses. From my experience, it seems English Literature is fairly unique in its allocation of just one semester to complete your 8-10,000 word dissertation. Most other people I’ve spoken to tend to get two semesters, from September to March/April, to write their academic ‘masterpiece’.

Well, it’s not really a masterpiece, is it? It’s basically just several essays woven into an extended argument. Sounds simple enough. The trick is, they all say, to find a topic you really love and stick with it – if you manage that, then writing and researching will be a breeze. For some people, this part is easy. They’ve been waiting their entire degree to write about queer tropes in Medieval dream visions, the gender politics of Harry Potter, or, as Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood prepares to write her thesis on in The Bell Jar, twin motifs in Finnegans Wake. For others, picking a topic is perhaps the hardest bit. I fell into the latter category. The advice we are always given is read as much as you can. Devour everything. Make notes, talk to lecturers. So in my junior honours year, I picked the courses that I suspected would be most up my street: American Literature 1900-Present, Modern Literature 1890-1945, Modern Literature 1945-Present and Literary Theory. All courses I would highly recommend to anyone in second/third year thinking ahead to picking next year’s honour’s courses. I suppose the whole time I was tracing vague themes that threaded themselves through my favourite books on these courses: textual effects of the uncanny, pastoral modes, madness, poststructuralist subjectivity, psychoanalysis, psychogeography, as much Derrida as I could even slightly get my head around.

In the end, my dissertation interest fell on technology, as I was seduced by a very strange novel on my 1945-Present course: Tom McCarthy’s C. In a way, it’s an encyclopaedic novel which picks up on all of my favourite themes. A novel which, at the level of both form and content, weaves together questions of modernity, the avant-garde, wireless technology and theories of networked society and subjectivity. It’s a novel haunted by the flickering presences of insects, war, Freud, Joyce, Kafka, Ballard, Marinetti; a novel which inhales and exhales as many intertexts as it can possibly breathe in. A novel which disturbs with its themes of incest and violence, its lack of a strong sense of humanist ‘character’, but enlightens with mini-lectures on entomology, Egyptian history, the workings of various technologies. There are also bouts of dark humour that keep you sane throughout the narrative, along with its beautifully crafted imagery. McCarthy cleverly invokes the emergent technological communications of the early twentieth century to comment on our present condition in a world saturated with wireless signals and the ever-present dominion of the Internet, which is not really external to us but rather an inherent web through which we live our daily lives and experience our desires.

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We had to submit our dissertation prospectus right after our exam period in May of this year. That was a stressful time; even though these prospectuses aren’t binding, it’s still difficult to come up with a semi-logical argument and assemblage of texts when your brain is still fried from months of exam revision. Still, it’s good that we were forced to think about it early. I spent the first couple of months of summer rereading my primary texts and thinking about some ideas I wanted to develop. By August, once I’d returned from seeing family in England, I suddenly hit panic station. In a month or so, I’d be returning to uni and then it would be a matter of weeks before the deadline. I thought of all the things that might threaten my ability to complete the deadline in that time. Being called for Jury service, work, deadlines for my other course that semester (Modern American Women’s Writing), a freak spell of perishing weather, my laptop dying, losing my pen-drive, falling into the dark pits of writer’s block or depression – the worries dragged on. Thankfully, these things either didn’t happen, or only happened to a perfectly manageable degree. In fact, it turned out to be possibly my favourite semester at uni.

You see, there’s something very rewarding and liberating in being charged with your own project. There are no specific guidelines for your particular topic: aside from the annotated bibliography and the final submission, you set your own deadlines; you decide the scope of your topic, the texts you want to read; you aren’t harrowed by the prospect of a final exam which may necessitate the memorising of quotes from every last piece you find yourself reading. Of course, it varies from supervisor to supervisor your experience of all these things. They are there to give you advice, to offer you ideas for further reading, but everyone goes about it in different ways.

So throughout August and September, while we were being blessed with an unusually bright summer, I found myself in the pits of the library almost every day, trying to get my head around all the theory I was planning to use. I read countless journal articles, chapters from monographs, books on or by the likes of Freud, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, Friedrich Kittler and Bernard Stiegler. Interviews with all my chosen authors. I jotted down pages and pages of notes, filling up a little sparkly notebook I’d bought to encourage me to get started early. My bibliography was already totting up nicely with tons of references. I was putting together a plan. It felt good, to feel motivated enough to work this hard.

Luckily, I managed to keep the momentum up throughout the semester. I wrote the dissertation originally split into three large chapters, the first two comparing various texts and the third focusing on C. It was easy to write (early mornings in the library or in bed) with my personal harsh deadlines always in mind. If I finished the thing early, I could breathe easy again. Fuelled on green tea and Dairy Milk chocolate, I got most of my dissertation written by Reading Week (mid-way through term). The problem was, my word count had gotten waaaaaay out of hand. I thought this was okay; just write now, edit later. But it’s kind of impossible to cut out as many words as I had. I tried rewriting the middle chapter over Reading Week and all I succeeded in was cutting the odd paragraph and making my prose sound better; there was still some serious trimming to be done. I went to my supervisor and pleaded my word count woes. Her excellent advice was to pick one – just one – chapter and stick with that. Now that’s a terrifying thought when you’ve just spent four months researching and writing on four primary texts that you’re no longer going to use. Nevertheless, it was something I had to do; I felt that to condense my argument as it was would jeopardise the quality of my analysis. Maybe one day I’ll go back and re-work my discarded material for a Masters. It’s a thing we all have to go through as Lit students, getting the balance between variety and depth. Fitting in both theory and close reading. In the end, I chose my third chapter on C and completely rewrote it with smaller chapters. Time will tell if that worked out okay.

Sometimes I think back to the process of dissertation writing we went through in sixth year at school, writing our Advanced Higher dissertations. Admittedly, they were half the size: English Lit at 4500 words, Modern Studies at 5000. You got all year to write them and in theory, there were more opportunities for help. Still, although I worked consistently throughout the year on both, there was still that last-minute panic dash to sort out small things: referencing problems, formatting issues, those evil little things that you think will be okay but come back to bite you. I remember the day before the Modern Studies one was to be handed in, my teacher phoned my mobile to tell me he just opened it to read and noticed that there were footnotes missing, or just floating around my document. So I had to get the bus back from college and traipse into the school that night at six o’clock to fix it. Similarly, last Tuesday night I found myself at five to six (and I needed to be somewhere else at six) in a tizzy at the library, surrounded by heaps of messed up paper and broken hopes. I thought I’d finished it, proofread it fifteen times (and got others to proofread it) but reading it again I was still finding things that had mysteriously disappeared, moved, or simply needed replacing. The bibliography giving me the wrong page numbers. Queue a mad dash from my computer to the library printers (over and over) as I kept replacing the mistake-ridden pages. This day was perhaps the most stressful in five months of working on the dissertation. No kidding, give yourself as much time as possible for formatting and proofreading. Word processors will be the death of me.

Maybe this is all hyperbole; after all, I got my dissertation in over a week early. What a great feeling, although it’s only now that it’s hitting me. It’s hard to grasp how much of your mind is occupied by your dissertation until you’ve done one yourself. Until you’ve handed it in. Even now, I still get names and references flashing through my mind and I worry did I put that in the bibliography? did I remember to mention this theory? where did that quote go? It’s really difficult to let it go.

Nonetheless, it’s not all fear and stress. In the end, I loved my topic and can really see myself going back to it, rewriting and expanding it in the future. Your dissertation is one of the most satisfying pieces of work you’ll ever produce at uni. Scrolling through the finished document, it feels good to see all that prose stretched out over many pages, and know that it’s all yours. You wrote it. You should be proud of that, no matter what mark you get. Sure, there will be times when you want to hide under your bed or a desk in the library and cry, when you want to fling your books out the window or delete every last silly word you have written, but in the end you have to break through the pain and just get it written. Accept it and let it go. If you get writer’s block, spend ten minutes free writing on anything at all that’s irrelevant to your dissertation. The weird person sitting opposite you in the library, for example. This should help to get your ‘writer’s flow’ back. Moreover, chocolate helps (indeed proves invaluable), as does a supportive friend (and/or flatmate). There’s a warm sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ amongst fourth year English students, particularly as the dissertation is such a lonesome project, so it helps to talk to someone about your ideas. Also, obviously, as everyone always says, a good topic makes for a good dissertation. But either way, it will be okay. You have to learn to be good with timekeeping, to narrow your argument and find ways of connecting and condensing it. All very useful skills for any kind of future critical writing you might engage with. And out of all the stress, the feeling of finishing your dissertation makes all the hard work worth it. So to anyone who has any kind of dissertation to write either this year or next, I say don’t dread it, but look forward to it.