Shaped by Dialogue

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We define our identity always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the things our significant others want to see in us. Even after we outgrow some of these others—our parents, for instance—and they disappear from our lives, the conversation with them continues within us as long as we live.

Charles Taylor
Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition

Everybody Knows This Is NOWHERE

This morning I started reading Everybody Knows This Is NOWHERE after breakfast and did little else until I finished reading Alice Furse’s story. Though a first novel, it in no way feels like a work of apprenticeship.

Though the setting and characters are thoroughly contemporary, it has the feel of a work of the modernist movement, its sparse style, Furse’s gift for understatement, allusion and irony, the attentive depiction of the heroine’s preoccupations in an alienating office environment and within a relationship that has hit a dead end. This is very conscious artistry that dispenses of traditional narrative concerns such as plot, event, and facile resolution of the character’s circumstances.

The writer’s meticulously disciplined style and skilful rendering of character through intuitive understanding of dialogue, powerful imagery and metaphor expands the range of the novel. The novel’s heroine is unnamed, her boyfriend identified only as the Traffic Warden, yet each are fully drawn and well-defined in their own right, they each represent an impressive portrait of the atomised condition of life in the twenty-first century.

Everybody Knows This is NOWHERE signals the début of a distinctive voice in English fiction, and a style that I cannot wait to see further developed and refined in later novels.

Seamus Heaney and Caillebotte’s Banks of a Canal

Seamus Heaney finished this poem 10 days before he died, meditating on the serene beauty of a canal painted by the French artist Gustave Caillebotte.

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Banks of a Canal

Say ‘canal’ and there’s that final vowel
Towing silence with it, slowing time
To a walking pace, a path, a whitewashed gleam
Of dwellings at the skyline. World stands still.
The stunted concrete mocks the classical.
Water says, ‘My place here is in dream,
In quiet good standing. Like a sleeping stream,
Come rain or sullen shine I’m peaceable.’
Stretched to the horizon, placid ploughland,
The sky not truly bright or overcast:
I know that clay, the damp and dirt of it,
The coolth along the bank, the grassy zest
Of verges, the path not narrow but still straight
Where soul could mind itself or stray beyond.

Data Output on Negative Capitalism

A selection of snippets from J. D. Taylor’s Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era (published 2013), an incisive diagnosis and series of responses to the current economic and cultural malaise.

Neoliberalism is the political model of financial capitalism and represents the current political and economic consensus of leaders in Europe, China, and the West. It is an economic argument that unregulated financial trade is the best model for a self-sustaining and meritocratic economy. Whilst it is debatable how fundamentally violent, competitive, or power-seeking human life is, rather than working towards a cooperative and regulated social democracy as I will argue for, declaring capitalism as the best basis for a developed society is dangerously destructive, crisis-ridden, and ultimately fascistic. Capitalism intrinsically negates individual and collective capacity for equal political representation, social rights, and quality of life, given that its base assumption is that the value of life s determined by its success in individually accumulating and trading wealth. The more powerful capitalism is-that is, the more wealth can be observed to be concentrated in the hands of a very small cabal of effective capitalists – the less the lives of individuals and communities on low-incomes matter. There is no ‘good’ capitalism, and the system is by no means in a state of crisis, unless perhaps its sustainability is threatened by the growing anger of social democratic revolt sweeping the globe.

Life needn’t be against power, not when life itself is an operation of power, at present directed against its own interests. Rather, the blinkers of neoliberal capitalism need to be removed from social life. Each of us must re-programme ourselves to think beyond the mean profit principle, anxiety and cynicism of the neoliberal era.

The irony of neoliberalism is that it doesn’t involve free markets at all. It has historically required specific intervention by governments and intergovernmental global agencies into the markets, forcibly deregulating them and transferring public property into private hands. It is maintained with regular state intervention, from continued sales of public assets or resources to financial institutions. It is a state-imposed mechanism.

When deprivation of activity and agency is combined with a more practical inability to be at home because of longer and more unstructured working hours, a powerful process is at work: a fundamental disempowerment through alienation and a negation of workers’ time, space and mature ability to make independent decisions. Home CCTV systems have been sold by security companies and are increasingly popular, whilst the public spread of CCTV was marked by a new televised form of entertainment, as drunks, criminals and even reality TV contestants amused and entrained record audience figures via recorded CCTV footage. Pervasive monitoring of celebrities and political figures has dominated the scoops and scandals of the British tabloid press, as surveillance equipment and paparazzi have come to constitute the source of political information an popular entertainment. The individual is emptied of all agency except their capacity to also become part of consumer entertainment, and so the infantilised masses contemplate themselves as passive spectacle, the signal point of fascism as Walter Benjamin warned. As ‘reality’ becomes a fixture of television programming, observe a new phenomenon of online self-commodification through Web 2.0 profiling, blogging and use of twitter to immediately share thoughts (and thereby assume their worth), and the rise of home-made pornography. Galloway and Thacker describe this self-commodification with a new motto for the digitised era: ‘Express yourself! Output some data!’ I in turn LOL and dutifully retweet this, ‘Like’ its Facebook page, or repost it on my utterly tedious micro-blog.

A Musical Initiation

Only one band ever visited the small, remote East Asian country I called home for the first fourteen years of my life. Why Boney M chose to play in Brunei I’ve never been able to discover. That summer Ma Baker, loosely based on the story of a legendary 1930s outlaw, drifted vaguely out of every shop front. We had really good seats for the concert, at the sides, not far back from the stage. There was some sort of a light show. I don’t really remember. Years later, someone told me that band member Bobby Farrell died in St. Petersburg, so in the same city and on the same day as Rasputin’s death. Boney M had a hit with a song called Ra-Ra-Rasputin-rhymed with love machine-about the friend and advisor of Tsar Nicholas II.

That was also the summer that Saturday Night Fever materialised. Birthday party games were set aside and, out of nowhere, all the other teenagers suddenly knew the moves to Night Fever. Awkward co-ordination and adolescent diffidence sidelined me to observing intently from the edges of the room. The strong beats and uncomplicated song structures had some charm, but what changed everything, looking out at that room full of dancing teenagers was spotting my first punk, not that it was called that at first. I don’t remember his name, or if I ever knew it. He wore a plain white cotton shirt customised with splashed paint, torn black jeans held together with safety pins and loosely spiked hair, dyed orange-blonde. I spent the rest of that summer annoying older boys with questions about this new wave.

Punk quickly became my playground, obsessive in the way things can only become when you live in a remote country, over seven thousand miles away from the heat of a phenomenon. For once going back to boarding school at the end of the summer felt like a release from flatness towards the furious energy of London. The NME became my sutra, reciting gig listings as though part of a solemn ceremony: Generation X at Brunel Rooms, The Adverts at the Nashville, Shame 69 and Menace at The Roxy Club. By the end of that year, school had effectively lost control as I repeatedly bunked out after lights-out to head up to The Nashville, West Kensington, the Electric Ballroom, The Greyhound at Croydon, and various student union gigs. On the nights when jailbreaking was impossible John Peel’s radio show was taped and listened to obsessively.

Punk ended for me as unremittingly as it began. I walked out of the Lyceum after a staggering night with Stiff Little Fingers, Gang Of Four, The Mekons, Human League and The Fall, and knew that, for me, something was over. I moved on. By the time I discovered punk, it was mostly over. I’m a child of post-punk: Joy Division, Two Tone and PiLThe Cure.

Eskimo Wolf Trap

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Eskimo wolf trap often quoted in sermons 2013, Dimensions variable Installation of diasec, eskimo knife, polyurethane, 200 kg of sodium bicarbonate

Eskimo wolf trap often quoted in sermons
2013, Dimensions variable
Installation of diasec, eskimo knife, polyurethane, 200 kg of sodium bicarbonate

Eventually, a wolf will approach the knife and begin to cautiously sniff and lick the frozen blood. After believing it is safe, the wolf will lick more aggressively. Soon, the blade of the knife becomes exposed and it begins to nick the wolf’s tongue. Because its tongue has been numbed by the cold of the frozen blood, the wolf is unaware that he is being cut, and the blood it now tastes is its own. Excited at the prospect of fresh, warm blood, the wolf will hungrily lick the blade all the more. In a short time, the wolf will grow dizzy and disoriented. In a matter of hours, it will die from blood loss, literally drinking itself to death. As horrible as this picture is, it illustrates an important truth.

To Speak and Yet Say Nothing

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These things I say, and shall say, if I can, are no longer, or are not yet, or never were, or never will be, or if they were, if they are, if they will be, were not here, are not here, will not be here, but elsewhere. But I am here. So I am obliged to add this. I who am here, who cannot speak, cannot think, and who must speak, and therefore perhaps think a little….  And the simplest therefore is to say that what I say, if I can, relates to the place where I am, to me who am there, in spite of my inability to think of these, or to speak of them, because of the compulsion I am under to speak of them, and therefore perhaps to think of them a little.

Beckett
The Unnamable

Comradeship and Silence

Words exist but the pump to bring those words from the bottom of the well to the surface is malfunctioning. Buried in the sand at the bottom of the well is a torrent of words, but if by chance the pump stirs up some sand, by the time it reaches the surface, the words within convey nothing. As Johnson describes the adjective silent: mute, still, quiet, not speaking.

I love, (swoops and loops of love), Ellman’s description: “Beckett was addicted to silences, and so was Joyce; they engaged in conversations which consisted often of silences directed towards each other, both suffused with sadness, Beckett mostly for the world, Joyce mostly for himself.” It is such a precise description, that distinction so clear in the writing of both men.

In a timely intervention, my friend @EstherHawdon mentions the Japanese obsession with silence, and quotes Basho’s poem:

Old pond

frogs jumped in

sound of water

And goes on to say,

We usually use the word “ma (間)” meaning blank or emptiness, so when there is silence in conversation, we call this silence “ma” – “ma 間” is also used to mean blank space – e.g. there is a space between a stone and another in a garden, we call this blank “ma”

This returns me to a book that I’ve returned to again and again this summer, Federico Campagna’s The Last Night: Anti-work, Atheism, Adventure in which I found so much wisdom, particularly on his conception of comradeship (a few unlinked passages):

Comradeship among egoists allows them to further modify the reality in which they exist, thus shaping the landscape of their adventure and taming at least in part the influence that the environment in which they exist has on them.

As it always happens with the creation of a bond, unions of egoists necessarily result in something that exceeds a friendship based on shared interests or the simple joint-venture of cooperating forces.

And I make no apology for quoting again I passage I quoted a few weeks ago:

There was always something that allowed me to distinguish between the long list of unmemorable relationships and the few who were to remain. In all my strongest friendships, in all the best relationships I have ever had, an element seemed to constantly recur. It was the feeling of a movement together with the other person, a tension towards something or somewhere, a common action, a sense of solidarity within the frame of a shared intent. The people I have ever felt closest to have been something more than friends: they have been comrades.

Of course, I accept the political connotations of the word. But with a difference. Like political comrades, we were bound by a common desire and a common tension. Differently from them, however, our desires and tensions could not be limited by the dogma of some abstract ideals, let alone pre-existing ideologies. Between us, there was something that originated from us alone.

Silence as Esther describes so beautifully is neither a vacuüm to be feared, nor pure emptiness. As in Beckett’s Unnamable, referring to language and silence as distinct entities ends up conveying nothing as both merge into one. The Unnamable is silence.

Resisting Translation

It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is exiled among alien tongues, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work. For the sake of pure language, he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language.

Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, volume 1

Pannwitz writes: “Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a mistaken premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of German into Hindi, Greek, English. Our translators have a far greater reverence for the usage of their own language than for the spirit of foreign works . . . The basic error of the translator is that he preserved the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue . . . He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language. It is not generally realised to what extent this is possible, to what extent any language can be transformed . . .”

Walter Benjamin (quoting Rudolf Pannwitz), Selected Writings, volume 1

Broch proposed the thesis that in every work of German literature there was an echo of the world of German poetry and fairy tales – fog, forest, moon, dragons, elves – and this echo must reverberate in all translations

Marie Luise Knott, Unlearning with Hannah Arendt

Rosenzweig had already made a similar argument in 1924, but in less poetic language. In his well known criticism, that “foreign texts get translated into already existing German”, we hear an anticipation of Hannah Arendt’s attack on the linguistic clichés of refugees.

Marie Luise Knott, Unlearning with Hannah Arendt