blogs as tract homes, and a nocturnal improvisation.

Newly minted blogs are like rows of shining suburban tract homes, radiant with banality, waiting for their audiences, like young couples, to move in and make something of them. The realtor can provide a lovely array of designs and pre-made arrangements for the positioning of furniture, yet most blogs – like actual houses in the US – remain untenanted by an audience, although for altogether opposing reasons. And yet the seething blogosphere mimics the overcrowding of urban apartment buildings in cities such as Hong Kong, what Michael Wolf calls an “architecture of density.” (The metaphors that come to mind to describe this packed electronic architecture tend to be biological, and aquatic: crabs in a barrel, sardines in a can.) Blogs are suburban in that the majority of them are superfluous, vacant, and uniform, but urban in that they are packed together in a manner worsening the underlying condition – in this case, the deafening hum of surplus cultural noise.

Today’s contribution to cultural sprawl comes in the form of a fictional improvisation I wrote a month back. I gave myself half an hour, and chose the two words “time” and “rain” to go from. It was brought about by coming across a quote of Jorge Borges’ I had written down in a notebook. I think I originally found it in an anthology by Alberto Manguel. I’ve always found it an oddly moving statement.

And yet, and yet, time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river that carries me away, but I am the river; it is a tiger that tears me apart, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, alas, is real; I, alas, am Borges.”

David Horowitz, Untitled Piece.

David Horowitz, Untitled Piece.

‘There was rain over everything, rain that pirouetted up and down eaves, cascaded across hillsides, suffocated avenues and clogged parking lots, rain that came inside, did not know the boundaries where it was allowed to rain or not, rain that trickled through shut casements, rain that screamed out of ceilings like an angry mouth, rain that poured into glasses of milk, rain that soaked freshly made bread, rain that ruined crown molding and formed bacteria which later killed the owners of houses, rain that destroyed various pieces of fungible electronic equipment, rain that drowned small animals and gave children colds.

Then as quickly as there was rain, there was no rain left. The world ran out of rain. The rain shortage became a drought, and crops began to die, and the spaces of the planet that had been laid aside, demarcated, and given permission to be land, were swollen and parched like a tightening throat.

Salt water was brought up from the oceans and boiled and then used to irrigate fields, but this was expensive and took a lot of time. But fortunately the shortage of rain was replaced by an excess of time, and time itself began to slide down the sky like a smear of blood, and time introduced itself to hot plates of food, and dribbled and sopped and spattered all over vacuumed carpets, and groaned down entryways.

Because the human species is constituted by time, rather than moving in it like a liquid, like rain, some of this gross excess of time turned into flesh. Flesh that wrinkled itself and tumbled over steps, flesh that sat green on white tablecloths, flesh that burned redly on cement, flesh that grew sores and pimples, flesh that dissolved as if with acid and left awful smells lingering, flesh that convulsed and throbbed, flesh that reproduced, etc. Some of this flesh began to be used as food, or at least, the flesh which did not fall rotten from the time, or which was not horribly mangled or injured – as the flesh for some strange reason did all the things and had all the things happen to it that normal flesh does.

This soon became the main diet of everyone, but still there was so much time that everyone kept eating because there was nothing to do. But there was too much to eat. The days sat wide and open like a vastness of plains and never seemed to end. Soon the days became so large they dwarfed everything else, and the entirety of human existence winked out like a dead star under the hugeness of the days.

Soon no one even knew they existed, they were so small. And some time after that, as the days outgrew the universe in every direction like a boy hitting puberty, maybe they didn’t.

Let’s say they didn’t.’

music and horror.

Here are a couple tunes from my old YouTube channel that seem to have relevance to this blog, with its focus on fictions of horror and terror.

First up is “A Thought Through Shadows” by avant-garde band Venus Handcuffs. V.C. was a collaboration between Susanne Lewis and Bob Drake, both of whom worked in Thinking Plague and 5uu’s. From my description at the channel: “A project between Susanne Lewis and Bob Drake from 1985-86. Recorded with ‘decaying equipment in an abandoned yogurt factory.’ Their friend and collaborator Chris Cutler describes the album as ‘sounding like a spirit photograph.’ This is not the best track from the album, in my opinion – that honor goes to ‘Fur Man,’ which has been uploaded elsewhere. This stuff blew my poor little mind when I first heard it, and still does. Unease is a good word to use here.”

Images included in the video are by Jacques-Andre Boiffard (the famous S&M photo he took which ended up on a Naked City record cover), Richard Oelze, Tobias Schalken, and Albin Brunovsky. I particularly like the Schalken images not only for their depiction of women embracing black amorphous specters straight out of Bulwer Lytton’s The Haunted and the Haunters, but because he shares a last name with the painter who inspired a J.S. LeFanu story. (Also, Lytton may deserve his grief for writing some awful prose, but “The Haunted and the Haunters” is still a tremendous tale).

On the other end of the musical spectrum, this is a song by famous western singer Patsy Montana. This is an odder version of this song, a radio version she did with Jack Wayne and his Bar-10 Boys. The mixing is strange, with Montana’s periodic yodeling sounding like it was recorded in a shower, causing an intentionally unsettling (and simultaneously humorous) echoing effect. The video leads off with a beautiful painting by Simon Garden. This ghost apparently manifests itself by yodeling in the cellar, in the hall, etc. The locals burn the house to ashes, but “her yodel is still around.”

This song is not from my channel. It is a slow and gorgeous track by noise-rock band The Jesus Lizard.

Supernatural tales, and ghost stories in particular, are at heart about the past breaking into the present – whether silent as a cat-burglar, or thunderous and unsubtle as a siege – and leaving its thumbprint behind. This thumbprint is disquieting for a number of reasons. On the one hand, this intrusion is against nature, or allegedly so, and therefore monstrous if not in fact then in apprehension. On the other, this temporal gas-leakage reminds us that at some point, we too, will join with and become the past. History interpellates the reader in these stories, and says, as in the Medieval folk legend, “As I am, so will you be.” But above and beyond this, the past intrudes upon us because it wants to remind us that it does not exclusively own death, any more than we exclusively own life.

This song, which details the narrator stumbling upon a corpse in a cornfield, seems to me in the tradition of the Medieval tale where the three merry nobles come upon Death. The lyrics begin, addressing the cadaver in question:

“Your life is gone, your youth is over.

Years of cheer, reduced to this –

A crumbling mess on a September morn.”

connecting links.

Adolf Hoffmeister's "The City of Lost Time."

Adolf Hoffmeister’s “The City of Lost Time.”

In the staid and venerable blogging tradition, here are a series of links which may be of interest to those who find this blog to be of interest.

1) I Want to Believe. First up is an excellent essay about a topic I’ve been kicking around in my own empty and whistling skull for the past few days: conspiracy theories. In particular, their relation to reality-based theoretical concepts and narratives. Do they, in fact, taint systematic critique by a kind of association, so that talk of corporate power and structures of control become mingled in people’s minds with glutinous, carb-based alien lifeforms from the planet Sillkkkkksh? Above and beyond the obvious differences, what are the similarities these theories have to things as they actually are?

As it turns out, according to Jarrod Shanahan, these non-reality based conspiracies can actually be useful for helping people to think around the thicket of received opinion about democracy and freedom and the “free market.” It ends on a very simplistic paean to the power of the working class and the need to rise and so on, but it’s a good read, and better written than some of the obtuse stuff the New Inquiry posts. And I’ll take optimism any day at this point, over bog-standard reflexive defeatism. In one of the more interesting paragraphs, Shanahan says:

“The appeal of conspiracy theories is simple….whether its Lizard People, Ancient Aliens, Freemasons, Occupy’s “1%,” or the poor maligned Rothschilds….beneath the purported chaos of a modern world seemingly driven inexorably toward its own destruction, a secret logic hums away, unseen, yet steering with the circumspection of a protective father. In this way the conspiracy theory is a secularized monotheism which replaces our dearly departed God with an equally shadowy intelligence serving the same omniscient function. Sometimes it even lives in outer space and knows what we’re thinking.”

This point of conspiracy theories reflecting (or refracting) the logic of monotheism is an interesting one, although I am somewhat skeptical at a moment when many so writers today find the logic of monotheism everywhere. I might suggest that the theological frameworks of some conspiracy theorists are more polytheist than monotheist, simply because the various absurd or racist figures that fill them (Freemasons, Jews, Illuminati) are not privileged over one another, but often co-exist in the same conspiracy, cooperating within or vying for control of the power landscape. And this analogy seems to shrink monotheism into something which has no function other than to console believers that there is a direction and underlying purpose to the planet’s shoddy state of affairs.

More importantly, he suggests the succinct thesis: “The modern conspiracy theory is a mythologization of capitalism.” The modern conspiracy theory then, is a mythologizing and obfuscating theory, rather than one that has literally no basis or interest in reality, such as those stemming directly from Public Relations campaigns, like “America promotes freedom,” “Capitalism is the only way,” “The Democrats support unions and the working class,” and “Republicans want less government.”

2) “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” written by David Graeber for Strike! Magazine. It discusses the discarding, off-shoring, and out-sourcing of productive labor, and its replacement with un-productive clerical and administrative jobs, as well as service work. Graeber argues that the uselessness of certain professions creates a psychological violence on those performing it, and in tandem with a “mobilizing resentment,” results in meaningful work (that of teachers, garbage collectors, longshoremen and women, mechanics) receiving low pay and general disdain. Nothing earth-shattering, but worth the read and well-written.

“While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organising or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.”

3) “You Can’t Hurry Love,” by Subashini over at the wonderfully named Blog of Disquiet. This is a wide-ranging essay that covers topics such as: the “Neoliberal Heterosexual Couple,” with their “gym-toned bodies” and “identical cannot-be-arsed-about-anything-but-ourselves faces”; the disappearance of the individual into image; the colonization of desire; and Brazilian race-car driver Ayrton Senna. Really an excellent piece of writing.

4) “Fantasy and Revolution,” an old interview from 2000 with China Mieville on the relation of fantasy and SF  to left politics. A relevant excerpt: “Precisely because you read and write books with society in your head, the ‘escape’ that Tolkien and others aspire to is doomed to fail. In fact, it’s precisely those kind of escapist books that take the real world for granted which are most shackled to thinly veiled and highly ideological versions of that world. The problem with most genre fantasy is that it’s not nearly fantastic enough. It’s escapist, but it can’t escape.”

5) Fallen Master of the Macabre: Jessica Amanda Salmonson discusses the life and work of Vincent O’Sullivan, a lesser known writer of late 19th and early 20th century horror fiction, who knew Oscar Wilde, and died in a “pauper’s grave.” Here she tantalizingly mentions a difficult to find tale of his, seemingly a conte cruel, which will bother me endlessly until I can read it:

“Additional Decadent tales are “Will” from The Green Window (1899) & his rarest story, “The Monkey & Basil Holderness.” The latter appeared in only in the Yellow Nineties journal The Senate which Vincent regarded as superior to the Savoy & the Yellow Book. It was published by two brothers of Manchester who forever after retained Vincent’s affection, for he wrote of them: “The two Bynges who, unlike most of the Yellow-Bookites, had a strong sense of humour, regarded the whole thing as a huge joke, & one day they defied me, who was the shocker of the affair, to write a story which would explode all their subscribers. I accepted; & the story, called ‘The Monkey & Basil Holderness,’ had certainly had the desired effect.”

Indeed, Vincent’s tale made such a stir that the journal was censored, matrons no longer submitted their rhymes, while Vincent was declared “morbid & unhealthy” & castigated as “no English gentleman,” the day’s supreme vituperation. The magazine ultimately folded on account of the reaction. The story of Basil & his monkey has lost none of its shocking nature in the century since, & is probably the grimmest & most perverse of all “beauty & beast” variants ever penned.”

All I have read by Sullivan so far is “The Master of Fallen Years,” from John Pelan’s Century’s Best Horror, “The Abigail Sheriff Memorial” out of F. S. Greene’s Grim Thirteen anthology, and “The Next Room” in a Richard Dalby antho. The first two were excellent, the latter, not nearly as much. I look forward to reading more.

motionless rioting.

Leon Spilliaert, Snowy Landscape, Ivy and Kiosk. 1915.

For those persons (or non-person spambots) curious, the title of this blog does not come from Object Oriented Philosophy, of which I know little about.

Awhile ago, I wrote:

‘What is the literary equivalent of Léon Spillieart? He can make an empty dining room as haunting as anything I’ve ever seen.

It would be a lonesome, nocturnal kind of writing. Sometimes beautiful, others frightening, often both, and all the more so because one is never quite sure why it is beautiful or frightening. It sinuously works its ambiance into the viewer like a mosquito, with a sort of intravenous stealth whereby you do not realize you’ve been bitten. It would be a literature dominated by things – tables, doorways, staircases, windows, canals. The things outnumber the people, surround them with quiet force. It’s a panoply, a motionless rioting of objects. They are tumultuous in their stillness, threatening even. Objects have menace.’

Leon Spilliaert, Salle de tables d'hotel

Spilliaert’s work sometimes doles out absences like methadone for an addiction to the human form. The absences are not really absences though, because an absence is predicated on an eventual return. In some of his paintings, as in the dining room above, I find it impossible to imagine that anyone would ever return. The dining room is lit, the places are fully set, the chairs are pushed in exactly right – but no one will ever return. It’s not really an absence then, or even an emptiness. It’s a reversion to something that came before, the loss of artificial function. The only return is to whatever inscrutable function these objects (tables, tablecloths, chairs, chandeliers, gas-lamps, a hanging clock, a set of mirrors) regain whenever they are alone. I am reminded of what Rene Magritte wrote about a painting he made of a pair of red shoes, called The Red Model:

“The problem of the shoes demonstrates how easily the most frightful things can be made to appear completely harmless through the power of thoughtlessness. Thanks to the modele rouge one senses that the union of the human foot and a shoe is in fact based upon a monstrous custom.”

If the customs and functions humans often give to objects are monstrous and perverse, the reversion or regression of these articles to a state without that function is a normalizing one. What might be frightening then, is that this loss of given function presents a world without the possibility of humans coming back to impose those functions once more.

How could there be a literary equivalent to this, particularly one nearly as gorgeous and effective? The after-human world has been used up, despoiled of any former panache it may have had. An important distinction then, might be rather than an after-human world, a without-human world. A literary world temporally contiguous with the human world, but existing wholly without it. Not a world of bombed out classrooms and abandoned buildings, as those belong to the depleted and over-commercialized after-human realm. Instead of abandonment, we would be talking about neglect. The dining room never used, the storage closet never opened, an attic with a concealed entrance no one is aware of, etc. It would be dark, and quiet, the silence and stillness broken only by the endless amalgamating of dust, by time excreting its tiny, proliferating matter over everything like a skin of snow.

This kind of literature would almost lose its own function as well, in the process.

Rene Magritte, The Red Model

(Of course, there are now shoes being sold that look very much like this. And they are odd.)

the dead horse has been turned into a coffee table.

Aleksandr Brodsky & Ilya Utkin, Theatre Design.

For awhile now, I’ve been thinking about the need for drawing a distinction between ‘escapist’ fiction and what is merely called escapist fiction. This is, in some ways, related to the unbelievably old and dead horse about genre fiction vs. literary fiction, but I think goes beyond that. The term ‘escapist’ is usually given employment as a pejorative to fiction deviating in some way from material reality (often but not always genre fiction), and thus, from literary realism. The line is that these kinds of fiction do not engage with reality and its constitutive material and social conditions, but rather retreat into a stuffy, hermetic den. This is still a claim I want to take seriously, however. The fiction of the fantastic in the majority of its 20th and 21st century manifestations has been, for a significant period of time, synonymous with shying away from an engagement with the world, as if all speculative fiction were guilty of what Athena Andreadis calls “persistent neotony.”

All I will say about this decrepit chestnut  is that, given the subsumption of ‘magical realism’ into literary fiction, all reservations about escapism can be seen to pivot on refuting a reverse of the sort of argument Abraham made to God in the Old Testament, suggesting that Sodom be spared from destruction if “fifty righteous” individuals be found. The number dwindles to forty-five, then forty, etc, with each repetition of the argument, and God hedges each time. The traditional gripe with non-realist fiction boils down in this way to an argument based on the ever diminishing returns of an ambiguous ‘realism’. What if there is only one psychologically acute specter of a dead grandmother? How about two banshees? Three sentient, nitrogen based creatures living in deep sea black smokers? The only way out of this Abraham-argument is to draw arbitrary lines in the sand, and cling to an increasingly flimsy and irrational realism.

That clear, what can the fiction of the fantastic tell us about current conditions? It is tempting to end the question with “…that realism can’t?” But this suggests to me a draconian politics of narrative, wherein the fantastic must be able to identify itself at all times for when Sheriff Joe rolls around, must marry a neighboring, tepid, middle-class realist romance to obtain a green card. And in knee-jerk reaction to this I would like to say that the fantastic should be able to exist in a story for no reason at all. Yet at the same time, in the words of a contemporary weird-writer whose name I have forgotten, “the story is the telling.” And if the fantastic is to remain vital, to be dynamic, surely it must do something.

What it does, and what it can do, brings us to the question of escapism. Let us assume the old claims are correct; the fantastic is synonymous with the escapist. Rather than construct a hard and fast, false-opposition between an illegitimate escapism and a legitimate escapism, it’s probably better to work around a more fluid conception that posits two basic “types” of escapism which fantastic fiction can move back and forth between in various degrees.

In fiction in general, there is a particular injunction to “write as it is,” where you reproduce without flinching the awfulness and loveliness of your particular moment in culture and space-time. An alternative injunction often proposed is that one should “write how it should be,” or “write how it should not be, but might.” The second injunction says that the mere reproduction of things as they are takes an active part in their reconstitution, that the army of literary Frankensteins keep this or that monster alive by writing it so many times. As the previously-mentioned-on-this-blog Junot Diaz, says: “It’s our fiction where the toxic virus of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, etc. passes from one generation to the next, and the average artist will kill you before they remove those poisons.”

Along this line, as an addition to the old law about science fiction technology becoming reality if written often enough, one could add: The current order of things will remain the current order if written often enough. The original law refers to positive extrapolations of technology; the latter to a politics of status quo neither positive or negative. The first is “hard,” the second “soft,” if you will. Yet both operate in a similar way.

I want to apply the first injunction to the realm of fantastic fiction on the level of escapism. This type of escapist work is, to glean puerilely from Adorno, where “the dream has no dream.” By writing (often unconsciously) “as it is,” this mode’s fantasies and deviations from reality are actually reproductions of it. Its speculative societies are replications of actual ones, its grasping for difference reaches only sameness dressed in artifice. Its otherness and its difference are shams for the status quo and normality. Its escape is only a return to the current state of things, with or without critique or analysis. Its escape is almost an escape from the fantastic itself. It provides familiar comfort but with a sheen of the strange. This type of work at its extreme is what Barthes talked about in Mythologies with Jules Verne’s novels being about the bourgeois subject who, “re-invents the world, fills it, closes it, shuts himself up in it, and crowns this encyclopaedic effort with the bourgeois posture of appropriation: slippers, pipe and fireside, while outside the storm, that is, the infinite, rages in vain.” The veneer of the unusual is conquered by the comfortable (for the middle-class) status quo.

The escapist element of work done in this mode is often performed unconsciously, with ideology, as it were, leaking onto the page like a raw egg. Writers who work in this mode usually are not aware that they do. Those that are aware are usually attempting trenchant critique via reproduction (holding the mirror), which may not be the greatest use of the speculative’s potential to begin with, and in a basic sense is still replicating the current order, although possibly with the added tinge of romance much fantastic fiction has, however dystopic. Unflattering and gritty portrayals have, in a sense, been co-opted and given their own noir-ifying appeal, whether in “grimdark” genre-fantasy or whatever. The current order becomes a meaningless noir stage-set, like generic dark bars and shadowy figures smoking cigarettes. The critique tends to de-claw itself. The status quo in all its resplendent shittiness becomes normalized. (Unforgiven, the Western that tried to de-mythologize the old Hollywood West, is the new mythology.)

An example of the other type of escapism, of “writing as it should be”, would then be like Leonora Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet, in which a group of ninety year old women overthrow Christian patriarchy and establish a magical, paganist matriarchy. It is a different mode of escapism because it at least succeeds in presenting a different vision of life, and one in which the state of things are changed irremediably. Any speculative fiction presenting an actual alternative to its particular moment is working in this mode. This strikes me as a more useful and fruitful mode in a politically lethargic time, and on a basic level. When the present is viewed as immutable and permanent, it is more effective than ever to merely present something different, to show the dream in possession of a dream. Also along this line is Delany’s novel Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand, which is thematically all about diplomatic navigation and desire as a means of negotiating and navigating difference.

For breaking up cultural and political lassitude, this latter mode seems to have the most potential for fantastic, speculative fiction going forward. It seems to me the most promising work possible for science fiction and fantasy, of presenting alternatives to the present, rather than stylistically reconfigured presents with analogues of the Isreal/Palestine confict and rapacious capitalist world-systems eradicating their planets of resources, and so on. Genre fantasy can also do this. But what about horror?

Horror does not generally exist or function on the same sociologically focused level its two siblings do, so what can it tell us about what it is to live today under our particular set of conditions? Isn’t the feeling of terror a primitive, early-human condition? Given that so many of our cultural ills and prejudices, our historical tragedies and errors, live on as ghosts, maybe it is not so far-fetched for it to speak to us in a relevant way. But I want to interrogate this further, later on.

(Image is a speculative theater design by Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin. I chose this as much for its relevance to this post’s feckless dribblings as for its ambiguity. The theater design displays an obvious and radical divergence from traditional theater design – the stage is outside, whereas the seating is inside. The stage is, apparently, the street of a city. Is this radical change in design realism taken to its extremity, as in, saying to the audience, “You want verisimilitude? Here, look out on the fucking street outside, with a dog and some rain and shit. Pretty real, isn’t it?” Yet the street-stage may not actually be a street, it could actually be a more traditional extension of the theater itself, being nothing more than an elaborately constructed stage which happens to include a fake street, fake rain, a dog which may or may not be real, and relatively small motions towards a city that contains them all. We do not even know if the street-stage which the audience looks out upon has any relation to the physical location of the theater itself. Is this a stage-as-portal? Is it the same city, or is it a speculative one, a city that should or should not be?)

tumblr as library of babel.

Erik Desmazières, The Library of Babel (above.)

The feeling of being misspent, dispersed.

Much has been said already of the labor-element of maintaining one’s YouTube, Blogger, and Facebook accounts, of seeking artwork or pornographic images or humorous gifs online. It becomes a secondary job, a sequence of action one becomes locked into against one’s will. It becomes an addiction, an automatism. And this type of addiction or automatism is the opposite of hedonism: the pursuit of desire not to enjoy it, but to exterminate it. Instead of sating desire whenever it arises, it seeks out desire wherever it may hide – and then eradicates it. But its method of eradication is such that it eliminates the original desire and replaces it with symbolic phantasms of desire that proliferate rather than disappear. What starts as “I’ll just check out a couple of the latest pages on this tumblr,” becomes “Well, I guess I have time to go all the way back to September’s archive.”

As Baudrillard says of pornography, this automatism becomes enjoyment haunted by its own disappearance. This, some would say, is the dominion of the Super-ego. Culture becomes a vortex which winds us ever inward into its depths.

Most of these instances of cultural labor operate in this simple way: the content creator is the click generator, and everyone else is meat for advertising. Social networks like Facebook, by giving personal information to advertisers, circumvent this process so that everyone is both click generator and meat at the same time.

Tumblr, however, does not functionally turn all of its users into “stinking spambots.” That function is only incidental, in the same way that it is incidental to all activity on the internet. Yet the job-like automatism remains.

To be a consumer of cultural material on Tumblr is to strap oneself to a mountain like Prometheus and be consumed by an eagle; except, unlike Prometheus, we are not renewed the next day. And the joke is, of course, that we are our own eagles; the creatures digging inside our abdomens are our own selves. The cultural vortex beckons, with the hounds of advertisement in dutiful attendance. Like traditional ghosts, before the the presence of the vortex we are frozen and cannot move until we are seduced into performing labor for it. The labor it asks of us is to look at it, and not incidentally, give it information about ourselves which it will use to enhance its halting gaze. The monitor monitors.

The vortex’s gaze is a sorcery like the gazes of Sphinx, and it transforms lively and virile conversations into dead and inert stage bits that crackle with the hiss of old records. It taxidermies everything, it de-culturizes culture. One of its main effects is that objects, with a wave of a wand and a tawdry flourish of smoke, become merely objects that do not interact in a social space, which cannot be analyzed,  or even spoken to or about in tones other than rhapsodic, or in vocabulary other than lifeless. They are not even embedded in time. They are just there. Everything is equivalent.

A thing that is spoken can never be parsed or sifted for meaning because it is only an object, and to speak to an object is as pointless as poking through offal for omens of weather. For this reason, a thing that is spoken or sung or manipulated does not exist on the level of communication, nor does it convey information. Removed from a social space which reveals and betrays attitudes and politics, culture becomes white noise. This blockbuster (so this attitude suggests) has nothing to say to us about colonialism or gender or whatever else, because it is just a film. This is what some call the “political evacuation” of culture.

The cultural vortex which finds its penultimate expression in Tumblr is The-Past-That-Isn’t-Past, which deadens and nullifies the present.

But the vortex is not just a gaze. The cultural vortex is also a sort of library of Alexandria, extended in every direction beyond conception and strewn with swelling waves of lambently burning garbage. These waves beckon with the call of sirens, they crash through and roll over themselves, they glow from massive distances like nova. Maybe a better way to put it is to say that they form a library of Babel.

In the vortex, history is voided of itself and turned into a mummified husk. Chronology is mugged and thrown into the swill. Different periods co-exist with each other. Cultural movements morph into one another as if by hack surgery, or in the manner that different limbs entangle one another in the drawings of Hans Bellmer. Bellmer once said: “The body resembles a sentence that seems to invite us to dismantle it into its component letters, so that its true meanings may be revealed anew through an endless stream of anagrams.” But in these cultural vortices, the past and its history are dismantled into their components so that their true meanings may be obscured. The sentence becomes a glossolalia, an unintelligible logorrhea.

We believe, as guileless librarians swindled into laboring in Babel, that we are the ones doing the reading. Yet the reality is the opposite: we are the ones being read. It is like the “Chief Bromden” character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest says of his alcoholic father: “Every time he put the bottle to his mouth, he didn’t suck out of it, it sucked out of him, until he shrunk so wrinkled and yellow even the dogs didn’t know him.” It is as if Prometheus became convinced that the gods cursed him to eat a platter of broiled eagle every day. Yet we are not renewed the next day like Prometheus. We are not reimbursed for our lost time, for what Junot Diaz describes as the “collapsed spaces of deliberation.”

It seems that many tumblrs enact something Mark Fisher describes in regards to the dystopian film Children of Men – artifacts of culture are unmoored from their contexts, floating listlessly and pointlessly, often unnamed, “assembled as if on the deck of some Predator spacecraft.” Reading these sorts of tumblrs, one does not get the sense of taste at all, but rather an indiscriminate slathering of culture, smooshed together into a paradoxical, dissimilarly-homogenous goop. Everything bleeds together, and context and stylistic difference are drained to a peaked and feeble whiteness.

This does not mean that nothing positive comes out of tumblr’s library of Babel, or out of some of these other, spectacular, cultural vortexes. But we should remain skeptical of how beneficial they are to us, and not in the basic sense of whether they are fulfilling or not, but whether we truly enjoy them or are merely acting out an automatic role, a pseudo-job. And even if we enjoy them (and I often do), we have to consider if, as Jonathan Beller states a la Debord, the assembly-line has been abstracted from its industrial context and brought “into the visual realm, such that spectators’ practice of connecting a montage of images moving in front of them [is] not just analogous but homologous to workers in a factory assembly line producing a commodity.”

(Main image courtesy of Érik Desmazières.)

the micro-history of things.

Listening to Nick Papadimitriou talk about the ‘interzones’ and liminal landscapes within a city is sort of like walking onto the set of an old dream, for me. When I was younger, those kinds of in-between places were the places I dreamed about. The dreams that featured those places are the only dreams that I still remember more than a decade later, and wish I could dream again but can’t. One of these imaginary places has embedded itself in my consciousness so deeply that even today I’m not sure if it was actually real or an invention.

The crass materialist inside me smirks somewhat when Papadimitriou talks about some underground, rusted pipe vibrating in emotional resonance to his presence*, but his poetry of these passed-over, neglected spaces has power to me. He is concerned with the history of places, and in particular the micro-history of places; he says he wants to have a history that includes a spider that drowned in a rain barrel in 1965, etc. This sort of micro-history resonates (again, that word) with me, and coincides with the fascination I have always had for micro-things; the life and history of ponds, the rise and fall of algal growth, the daily lives of oarsmen and boatmen insects, the spires of rotten wood and grass creating unmapped forests on pond-floors.

There is also a sort of pantheism in Papadimitriou’s conception of the city and his place in it. He talks about wanting to become the tarmac under a freeway bisecting drainage ditches, about becoming the rusted fence into a purification facility, becoming thick beetles waddling in a pile of piss in an alleyway opening up into a canal.

As an American coming very late to the party, it is uncertain to me how influenced the psycho-geographers/deep topographers were by the earlier work done concerning ‘edgelands’ by environmentalists like Marion Shoard. It is also unclear to me how much their interest is aesthetic, and how much is an environmental concern for ‘wildscapes’ which actually serve an ecological function. This whole concern with edgelands possibly feels played out in England; partly in its aspect as a protracted argument between the traditional, moorland lovers and the wildscape advocates, but also as a pop-cultural phenomenon well known enough to somehow include Russell Brand in an annoying and minor role. Yet it seems for the most part unfamiliar in the states, whose fetishistic self-concern extends little to its own ecology and landscapes.

I think the closest U.S. pop culture ever got to engaging with its own edgelands and in-between spaces came during the furor over what was called the “ruin porn” photography of Detroit. This was when photographers (often not native to Detroit) went into the city to snap its estimated 20,000 abandoned homes, its derelict school houses with their classrooms full of poignantly empty chairs, and so on, and then set up art galleries to display their work, or finagled book deals to publish it. What became known as ruin porn photography had one common aspect with edgeland and wildscape photography in that it depicted a certain languishing of human influence alongside the resurgence of nature. Yet the differences between the two are important: what was called ruin porn was mostly focused on interiors, on shattered glass on old floors and stunted trees growing in operating rooms; edgeland photography is more focused on exteriors, on outside habitats. Edgelands, and wildscapes in particular, are about growth, rejuvenation in unexpected places, the humming of life in furtive areas. American ruin porn was superficially interested in the sunflowers growing in the cracks, but all of its energy was actually invested in decay.

Nonetheless, it makes sense that this concern not only with micro-history, but with the genius loci of places, would interest me as a reader and would-be writer of horror and ghostly fiction. The fiction of haunting is just as much the fiction of place, and the haunting subject can’t be severed from the site which holds it in a sort of ontological escrow. The following statement from Simon Sellars makes this point clearer: “Throughout the Western world, edgelands form the same relationship to the built environment as the unconscious does to the human mind: as a repository of fear, desire, and repression.”

* When Papadimitriou says things like this, it reminds me of object oriented philosophy, although I have no idea if he has any interest or awareness in that.

no one is ever lonely.

This will be a blog with a number of unappealing features. It will offer tentative cultural criticism. It will display unabashed baseball nerd analysis. It will have a sometimes vague, sometimes more definite attachment to feminism and left politics. It will engage with early 20th century horror fiction, and fantastic, speculative fiction in general from Swift to Delany. The relevance or lack thereof of these forms of fiction to the 21st century will be a strong and tedious concern. Jokes will sometimes make appearances like awkward coughs on elevators. It is recommended that you not ingest this blog if you have an aversion to any of the above.

The main tenets of this blog are that: 1) The short story is a superior form to the novel; 2) Short story anthologies are one of the best inventions ever; 3) The designated hitter in baseball is an abomination. These dogmas aside, feedback, criticism, and general back and forth are welcome and desired.

I previously ran a YouTube channel that featured early American roots music (Hish, Lord of Silence). It is now largely inactive.

As a demonstration of the kind of political and cultural ambivalence that will characterize this blog, I’ll take a leaf from Spike Lee’s playbook and pull out two contradictory quotes:

“There was this area called Times Square which was then a cornucopia, a Disneyland of sex and pornography and peep shows. I used to go there all the time. I grew up watching a lot of television and taking a lot of LSD so I had a really abstract view of reality, nothing seemed real to me. So this seemed to me a perfect thing. You could have sex with someone in ersatz, you would never have to touch them, in fact, they would never even see you. There would be these booths that were separated by a two way mirror, and on the other side was a man or a woman or a hermaphrodite, it didn’t really matter – pretending to masturbate. There was a little speaker by the window and this little bee like sound would transmit between the two of you that was intensely erotic. To me that was the final result of American culture, where you could experience your life without really experiencing it. And I think that’s a good thing. I think that means we as a society are heading straight to heaven.” – Michael Gira.

“What the philosophers once knew as life has become the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption, dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production, without autonomy or substance of its own. Our perspective of life has passed into an ideology which conceals the fact that there is life no longer.” – Theodor Adorno.