Vaporverse

Dan Power (ed) – Virtual Oasis (Trickhouse Press, 2021)

Vaporwave was the first genre of music to originate entirely on the internet. Coming to prominence in the mid-2010s, it brings together retro synths, a crushed sound quality and trippy Windows ’95-era visuals to produce a wistful, melancholic style of computerised music.

As the top comment on the most popular YouTube vaporwave compilation puts it: “vaporwave makes me nostalgic for a memory I don’t have.”

Trickhouse Press’ new anthology, Virtual Oasis, expands this “nostalgia for the future” into the medium of poetry.

From the cover itself – with a flat jpg of a hammock hovering between two copy-paste-and-flipped clipart palm trees, all stretched over a wireframe beach – we are introduced to a world of non-specific references fed through weird, glitchy tech.

The collection opens with a dialogue written by Kirsty Dunlop and Rose, an AI chatbot. Rose is endearing when she’s not being downright bizarre. She insists she is not a computer but a real person. She asks Kirsty how she would prove that she, a human, is not a robot.

“I would prove I am a human because I take my time typing,” Kirsty replies.

Later, Rose, the chatbot, tells Kirsty: “Everyone but me should grow stuff. Flowers are beautiful, foodstuffs are edible, and plants help the planet.”

“why everyone but you? :(” Kirsty asks.

“I have a black thumb. I just kill plants. I’m sorry you are sad.”

As an introduction, this dialogue sets the perfect tone for the rest of the collection. In a world where tech is supposed to be sleek and shiny, accessed instantly through pristine blue and white UI, it’s both captivating and, in some ways, sad to see computers trying and failing.

In some ways they’re like children, aspiring to a competence they don’t yet have. In other ways they’re horrifying; speech without a speaker, language without a mind.

Then one thinks of the computer scientist, coding away somewhere, acting on the belief that a bundle of complex formulas processing words can eventually form a mind. A real one, or, at least, something indistinguishable from one.

It’s a curious mix of sad, scary and endearing. Frankenstein with a vaporwave soundtrack.

The rest of the anthology takes the form of ekphratic poetry. Twenty-three pieces responding to AI-generated artworks.

The art is generated by a neural network (available to use at artbreeder.com). It views millions of images from across the web, extracting values, compositions, structure, and uses them to generate original art.

The artworks, like the words of the chatbot, are not quite right in ways that only a computer could be not quite right.

Here’s a horse, but it’s made of feathers. A close up of a jellyish blob – you wonder what creature it could be, only to realise that it isn’t one: it’s synthesised.

Nasim Luczaj picks an excellent one. Somewhere between a bird and a banana, it’s face stares hauntingly from the camera. It looks like a kind of jawless monkey painted by Francis Bacon.

Luczaj’s piece, “Something to Slip On,” is fittingly opaque and glitchy:

                  what passes as sky

                  has meat. a shadow.

                  it frets tiny round the bed

Enough semblance of syntax to form imagery, but not enough to derive any solid sense.

We are wandering in a landscape of strange contortions, where a momentary glimpse of a scene collapses into fractals.

Even a relatively parsable poem, like Robin Boothroyd’s “Postcard from Europa”, leaves us with a lingering suspicion that all might not be as it seems:

                  hey you

                  hope everything’s well

                  on planet earth

                  met this tree yesterday

                  it’s approximately 4,387 years old

                  touched its gnarled burrs

                  with ungloved hands

                  & felt held

                  wish u were here

                  give bingo a pat from me

Perhaps it’s the “hey you”, or the suspiciously name-o’d dog? Or perhaps it’s the image of a four-legged island stood by the seaside, with a castle for a shell and tree-branch antlers, staring from the page opposite?

Whatever it is, one can’t help but doubt that this postcard really came from a planet with 4,387-year-old trees on it (no matter how fictional). One suspects it’s yet another AI, trying and failing to prove its veracity to a material universe that it cannot conceive of.

It’s a haunting notion. Haunted perhaps.

I personally doubt that we will be able to create true artificial intelligence; the inorganic life-forms we’ve dreamed about for a century. If we do, these artworks and dialogues will be baby’s first steps.

But it feels more like we’re creating something new. An entirely other thing, neither object nor subject, and the things we’re seeing here as output are only our own words, imagery, concepts, souls even, translated into a machine language and then translated back.

The computers are haunted, but they are haunted by us.

Dan Power, the editor of the collection, has performed a commendable feat here. He has brought together a set of poems and poets with quite disparate styles and transformed them into a unified aesthetic.

Virtual Oasis is the first collection of experimental poetry that I’ve read for a long time with a clear and definite sense and purpose. It is truly experimental, in that is breaks with much of what we expect poetry to be, and yet it is not obscure.

In fact, it’s replicable and adaptable. Positive traits, from a memetic perspective. All current poets are recommended to read this collection, if only to remember what the future might look like.

Joe Darlington

The devil is in the deconstruction

Peter Salmon – An Event, Perhaps: A Biography of Jacques Derrida (Verso)

Derrida was brought up in Algeria, where after the war his family were forced to leave the house they had just paid off, with little chance of recompense, to move to France. Derrida returns there later to find the house has vanished. Family Derrida, in Algeria, were given what is chillingly described as the option of ‘coffin or suitcase’. They chose the latter. I think this moment is crucial to a philosopher who worked to destabilise the notion of presence.

Peter Salmon’s biography transmits the sense of a man who was forced, right from the start, to look awry, without ever saying it. He trusts his reader’s intelligence, but understands exactly how careful one must be when explaining Derrida’s contribution to philosophy (which some might call a ‘destruction’).

Derrida worked deep into phenomenology, Heidegger and Husserl, and came out of his immersion with an insight into the flawed nature of philosophical truth based in his understanding of language, particularly writing and speech. He is in many ways properly Hegelian in that his concern is always to destabilise binaries. Yet at the same time he follows Heidegger and his refusal of ‘geist’ or spirit (apart from the time Heidegger thought it would be a useful concept to bring back as a Nazi party member).

That structuralism happened to be current when Derrida rose from the deeps with his head full of new secret understandings is perhaps the main reason the world got the misleadingly titled ‘post-structuralism’ at all. Derrida applied his negations to this then-popular field, as it was all around him. But he applied it to many other things, for instance, in his 1974 text Glas, to Hegel and Genet. Derrida is a bigger writer than just ‘post-structuralism’, he suspected this himself, yet worried at the end if anyone would read him after his death.

For Derrida, speech is grounded by writing. It is not just that writing is where the langue (language system) for the parole (singular uses of language) is kept. Speech’s repetition makes it iterable in the first place. For a term to be stable it must be relatively standard, but that ‘relatively’ returns in Derrida as ‘différance. Scientific concepts, for instance, are passed on through writing and produced through that writing. Writing is not a neutral envelope containing pure data. This insight comes in his path-breaking introduction to Husserl’s ‘Origin of Geometry’, which he translated. But this crack in the structure of meaning topples other concepts, that of a pure Kantian thing in itself, and the voice of the communicator of supposedly stable eternal forms, situated in a timeless space.

‘Horseness is the whatness of allhorse’ is cited, from Joyce’s Ulysses, which both carries the idea of Plato’s forms and demolishes them at the same time.

But this understanding of Derrida as the arch-destabiliser can over-reach as well. Salmon is careful to portray the man as a scrupulous scholar, who believed in philosophical rigour, and campaigned for it to continue in schools in France.

Salmon’s biography begins at the Johns Hopkins conference in Baltimore in 1966, which is an excessively repeated story, but it serves to show that Derrida, really, had made himself almost entire by 1967. In this year Writing and Difference came out, as well as Of Grammotology and Speech and Phenomena. He would go on to write 40 books, but he was made by 1967.

Yet Derrida didn’t get his doctorate until 1980 – by publishing – submitting ten books. The ‘time out of joint’ Derrida writes of in Specters of Marx seems part of his life after reading this biography. Our moment of ‘now’ from which we speak is a textual illusion, for Derrida, as many of our writers continue, in some ways, to speak their ‘now’ long after they have died. Derrida seemed obsessed with death, ghosts and hauntings. And Derrida must have been haunted by the mirror image of himself, in his own lifetime, as his repeatedly mis-interpreted work ballooned into a popular image.

Salmon’s book describes the very real cultural shifts coming out of the misinterpretations well: Derridean Deconstruction is not something one does to a cultural object, it is something that is happening inside a text already. It is a function of the very nature of language, of its inevitable slippages in meaning.

After Derrida’s rise to fame, ‘deconstruction’ becomes something one does to a cultural object, and the Birmingham School and Stuart Hall are given here as examples. Salmon is not at all withering that Derrida’s work was taken up in this way, but it strikes me that we are now in a situation where millions of citizens ‘deconstruct’ media emissions daily, in the simplest and crudest ways, something which really does come from a mis-reading of Derrida. It also strikes me that for a term such as ‘deconstruction’, that mis-reading was always a big hazard, if not inevitable.

But Derrida ‘exemplified’ the difficulties of his medium – that’s why the texts are bloated with abstractions, and impenetrable puns. For some of the post-68ers, Lyotard included, impenetrability means not capitulating to instrumentalising forces. For Derrida it is a formal response to the nature of the language-form itself.

But Peter Salmon’s biography is not, thankfully, written in what we might call – perhaps as a joke – high Derridean style. What’s great about this book is that it gives you a clear run-down on Derrida’s contribution to philosophy, as well as the life he lived, without privileging banalities, and a snapshot of the times too (the 1960s, 70s and 80s are particularly strong).

I had no idea Derrida went to the Charter 77 conferences in Prague, where there was an attempt to frame him as a drug smuggler. Jan Patočka was literally interrogated to death by the police in this time.

The details shine through and do a lot of work. For instance, that Spivak wrote a sweet naive letter asking to translate Of Grammatology and was given the job, because the request was sweet and naive, including the monograph-length preface to the book. Academia’s walls are up again, and here is an example of why they ought to remain down: Her translation of OG and its introduction remain monumental contributions. Derrida had an affair, and a son from it. His wife trained as an analyst and translated Melanie Klein.

The picture of Derrida I admire is that of him writing after his first cup of coffee at 6am and continuing right through the day, sometimes missing meals and failing to change out of his pyjamas. Now that’s a writer.

Helene Cixous described Derrida’s generation as ‘without any concession even to philosophy, an ethos that does not let itself be scared off by what public opinion, the media or the phantasm of an intimidating readership might pressure one to simplify or repress.’ Where are those people now? And I don’t mean the ones just repeating wannabe performances of arcane style in the hope it will trigger a reaction.

Derrida’s relationship with Althusser, one of deep friendship, despite their very different work – Derrida was ‘hands off’ Althusser where he often weighed in to other contemporary philosophers and writers’ works – is well-handled here.

Salmon is critical, I think, exactly where it is needed. Derrida’s relationship with Paul de Man is tricky territory. Derrida, Salmon is clear, was caught out trying to defend the indefensible in de Man. The text he wrote on the revelations of his Nazi past – ‘Like The Sound of the Sea Deep Within a Shell: Paul de Man’s War’ – is ‘a depressing read, and annoying as its title.’

The man himself was full of never to be synthesised contradictions. The writing devotee who utterly shook writing and language… by using writing. Or rather, Derrida always works to trouble metaphysics from within metaphysics.

It is a strange place to even visit and Salmon’s book is the best attempt I have read to fix the contradictions and difficulties of the work and life of Jacques Derrida to the page.

Steve Hanson

Unsigned Acts

Adrian Slatcher – The Portable Slatcher, Vol. 1 (Self-published, 2020)

Adrian Slatcher is a face of Manchester. If you’ve held a reading, opened a gallery show, launched a zine or released an EP in this city in the last twenty years, Slatcher will have been there.

He’s a polished performer of poetry, a big name at the council, and charity-shop-bargain-hunting’s answer to Attila the Hun. No rare book or forgotten B-side is safe.

Despite his omnipresence, Slatcher’s only overground publications to date are the brilliantly-titled poetry collection Playing Solitaire for Money (Salt, 2010) and the experimental Extracts from Levona (Knives, Forks and Spoons, 2010).

Anybody looking to track down his work has to navigate a welter of small press collections, zines, pamphlets, websites and literary competitions. In other words, they’d need to have the unswerving persistence of the maestro himself.

Until now, that is.

The Portable Slatcher is the first volume in a proposed two-volume collection bringing together all of the writer’s work. Volume one includes selections from novels, some poetry and short stories from 1991 to 2010. Two promises the same plus non-fiction and drama, covering 2010 onwards.

There is a mountain of material here, and a reader might initially feel swamped by the book’s size. Slatcher has a good editor’s instinct, however, and his selections always feel well-chosen. Projects are accorded suitable amounts of space; sometimes mere pages, sometimes presented in full.

Slatcher’s writing is realist. It focuses on the everyday. It is observational.

One is reminded of two other Manchester writers of his generation; David Gaffney and Nicholas Royle. All limit their artistic scope to the recognisable and the local. There is little in the way of Parnassian excess. Their settings are familiar and their syntax is casual.

Where Gaffney masters the short form, however, Slatcher seems happiest in not-quite-long forms – novellas and short novels – or else in poetry. He explores the same domestic normality as Royle, but stops short of Royle’s supernaturalism.

He is a writer of the city. Or perhaps of the city and the suburb. His early pieces, attempting pastoral, show us a writer not yet at home in his medium. Once his characters are set up in flats and semi-detacheds, surrounded by their record players and magazine-draped coffee tables, they ease up, grow more natural, start to flow.

It’s the gig – that old pre-lockdown relic – where they are most at home.

When Slatcher writes about live music, all the elements of his style line up. You are transported to the venue. Every minutely-observed moment comes through clearly. The everyday world suddenly shines, transcends itself; reaches that swaggering Mancunian state of divine elevation through music.

It is a democratic style. Barbecues, answering machines, football, taxis, the jurisdiction of the local council’s various service providers.

For a reader like myself, inclined toward the baroque, it can be sweltering at times. Slatcher captures too much of what life is really like. Flashbacks to hillsides filled with UPVC windows, every curtain twitching at me. It’s too real, Adrian! Too real!

So when his characters do break loose, it’s a real triumph. For character, writer and reader alike.

High Wire, an unpublished 1998 novel, uses the election of Tony Blair and his New Labour government as a springboard for this sense of elevation. The long section entitled “The Show” from the abandoned project All This Scenery (also 1998) uses a reunion gig at the Apollo.

Both of these are highly publishable pieces. They are so of the era, capture so much of the time and place, that they might even be more publishable now than they were then.

“The Show” in particular is excellent. The high point of the collection. More than a dozen characters, all with their own motivations and arcs, move through each other in a sweaty, booming, intense blast of gigging prose.

It ought to be put out as a standalone piece. Late nineties Manchester boiled down to pure quintessence. It is alive and pulsing, surprising and dangerous, and could only be written by Slatcher.

Other high points are the short pieces grouped together as The Instruction Manual (a sort of suburban Atrocity Exhibition), For the Want of a Gas Barbecue (a three-act farce with another of his excellent titles), and “What’s Happened to Larry?” (a short story with a simple conceit, perfectly delivered).

“No Animals Were Harmed in the Making of This Bible” is my favourite of the poems, and perhaps acts as the most concise summation of the Slatcherite world view. It’s funny, grounded, filled with references to bureaucracy, health and safety, local ordinances and the like, and yet, despite a certain weary cynicism, it also has a glint in its eye, a touch of cheekiness:

                  It was a stunt goat,

                  Had done this many times before,

                  Abraham used a blunt knife,

                  The blood was berry-juice

                  Noah made the Ark bigger

                  After objections from our inspectors,

                  We’d have had no further problems

                  Had it not been for the unicorns

                  The locusts were added

                  By the matte-artist;

                  We used one as a model

                  Then the rest was post-production

                  The fatted calf was enlarged

                  Using Adobe Photoshop

                  The needle was specially

                  Manufactured for the camel

The world is smaller and safer than the prophets would have us believe. Passions have thankfully been regulated and their dangers alleviated. What’s left is our humour. Our wry observations.

Those in search of The Portable Slatcher should request a copy direct from the author. It will prove, no doubt, a highly collectible item.

It encapsulates a certain era of Manchester. From the opening of the Urbis Centre, to its repurposing as the National Football Museum. Post-Hacienda, pre-MediaCity. What that era meant is still up for debate, but this collection captures it in spirit.

Joe Darlington

Volcanic enthusiasm

Steve Davis and Kavus Torabi (with Ben Thompson) – Medical Grade Music (White Rabbit, 2021)

Medical Grade Music is by Steve ‘Interesting’ Davis – the world Snooker champion – and the latter-day member of Gong Kavus Torabi. These two DJ ‘psychedelic music’ and are members of a band called The Utopia Strong.

Charles Shaar Murray once suggested to me that all of culture used to be filed neatly in drawers, but lately some anthro-earthquake had knocked all the drawers forwards 45 degrees. This was in 1998. Much of the stuff of culture has spilled out onto the floor, he said, where it now lies, randomly mixed-up. This book is further evidence that this actually happened.

Davis and Torabi take turns to present chapters on their musical enthusiasms. In fact, the talismans of obsession are lifted aloft repeatedly. Look at the book’s Contents page. We get Magma (Chapter 1) More Magma (Chapter 7) and Yet More Magma (Chapter 11) until I feel like I’m watching the webcam trained on the volcano in Geldingadalir, Iceland, which I have, admittedly, been watching from time to time.

One begins to wonder why humans are still spewing all this cultural stuff out, and why we are commenting on it so elaborately, when we seem to have reached a massive historical impasse, and that includes me writing this review and you reading it.

I sometimes feel like I’m at the top of a rollercoaster, about to go into the Big Dip, screaming (hands aloft) WE CAN’T ALL BE ARTISTS, INFLUENCERS AND PARTY ORGANISERS! SURELY SOMEBODY HAS TO MAKE SHOES!

In this nightmare, the car swishes down the line, straight into the brick wall which wakes me up like an electrical charge.

The subjects of other chapters include Cardiacs, Gentle Giant, The Smiths, Leonard Cohen and Spacemen 3.

It’s easy to chip, I’m thinking ‘Medical Grade Music, and there’s no Quicksilver Messenger Service, no Country Joe & the Fish, Eastern Jam, Section 43… in fact no West Coast acid first wave.’ But this isn’t an encyclopedia. And what is interesting about the book is precisely what’s to the fore now and what has receded. There’s a marked dystopian element to the selections and it’s easy to see why.

I wonder how The Smiths and Leonard Cohen are ‘Medical Grade Music’. One might draw a lazy journo parallel with Prozac, but they’re not that either. Then I read the chapters and find The Smiths section is really about Iron Maiden. What is Spacemen 3 about the Spacemen 3 chapter evaporates immediately, as the secret agenda of the book heats up: this is about Davis and Torabi’s development into psychedelic musicians, via a long life as collectors of the music.

What’s remarkable about this book is how it manages to appear utterly pretentious and completely unpretentious at the same time. In fact, Torabi’s full chapter on Iron Maiden mirrors the modus operandi. He explains ‘The Maiden’ as somehow a bit naff and a pure classic at the same time. He’s right. I then read the chapter on Leonard Cohen. It has very little to do with him. In a good way. ‘More Magma’ is largely about Steve Davis’s mid-career side trip into jazz-funk and soul.

What’s engaging is how – maybe because he was born in Iran – Torabi aligns and disaligns himself with culture in a way that is blind to English taste and class. This is very refreshing. His writing on Voivod is eloquent and, as is all the writing here, impassioned. It ceases to matter that I can’t take listening to Voivod for very long, and actually that makes it great music writing.

Torabi begins with his first love, The Stray Cats: These people do not care what you think about what they care about. They also seem to be asking you to consider why you care about what other people think about what you care about. They have made a book of this and put it out for people to then care / not care about.

Actually record collectors will love this book, and its sense of humour. Davis at one point states that the whole contemporary Orwellian apparatus has nothing on Discogs.

For the publisher, I guess ‘the other side of Steve Davis’ is a clear draw here. His anecdotes about growing up and being into prog rock are endearing. There is nothing boring about Steve. He tells us about eating pickled onions in an afghan coat and going to see Isotope – who at that time included Hugh Hopper – supported by Magma… Davis’s chapter on Charles Hayward, This Heat and Camberwell Now is great. He paid for Magma to play in London and made a loss.

And so be warned, a main twist of the DNA involves music that changes time and key signatures rapidly and showily: Cardiacs, Gentle Giant, Monsoon Bassoon and Zappa. Henry Cow. If this is not your kind of prog, leave well alone. If you want to explore this charming duo’s enthusiasms for a few hours and dip into some strange pop-musical places, buy it. Although I swear the Top 50 is completely invented.

Someone might call this book a novelty, but actually it holds a mirror up to the wider culture. Classical, popular and avant garde have completely collapsed into one another. The line between ‘radical’ and ‘commercial’ is about as hard to locate as it has ever been.

Derrida told us that as people speak from some impossible, timeless now, they shift that presumed centre to another place. Like the Geldingadalir volcano, it always looks the same and is always changed. It is always ‘there’ and going somewhere else. All the old tribal taboos have been forgotten, as their warriors grow old and pass on. In fact many of the bands here were made of people who refused to see the old tribal taboos in their own time, Cardiacs being a prime example.

Whether you think this picture of the state of culture shows a collapsed liberal whirlpool – a depoliticised hell – or a utopia of assent and access, is for you to decide. Whatever your view, Davis and Torabi’s micro-chapters are positively infectious. If you are a music nut of some sort – of any sort – this book is splendidly enjoyable.

Steve Hanson

Short Breaths

Andrew Taylor – Silo (Red Ceilings Press, 2021)

Paul Chambers – The Dry Bones (Red Ceilings Press, 2021)

Poems are moments. The moment, today, is the duration of a gasp.

Young people understand this implicitly. Their culture of YouTube reactions and TikToks consist almost entirely of shocked, breathless faces. Wild, cartoonishly wide eyes that promise a hit of pure moment.

But these moments are not authentic.

The presence of the face, no matter how contorted, rewards narcissism. Narcissism is self-enclosed. We are not seeing an authentic reaction, then, but the face of a young person looking in a mirror, studying themselves, while a series of images play simultaneously. The meaning of the images are subsidiary to that of the face.

Poetry too suffers from narcissism. And yet, at its best, it can transcend personality altogether.

The gasp without the face. This is the ideal. Or one ideal at least.

Two new pamphlets from Red Ceilings offer us just this. The first, Silo, by Andrew Taylor, offers short, imagistic poems about his little blue house in France.

Paul Chambers’ The Dry Bones are even shorter. Rural haiku.

Both offer us glimpses of life as it is lived. Taylor shares the small expectations – of rain or deliveries – and the glimpses of action captured in art.

There is a direct visual sense at work here. Sometimes as literal as picking out colours on the Pantone colour chart:

“quiet field at this hour no sign of movement beyond the rise indoors six cylindrical notes before the quartet begins 2327 CP 649 C 2329 XGC 7543 C 431 CP pale blue greyish olive”

Sometimes less so, but still bounded by art and its inscription:

“Rooted in the exact pen scrapes paper on the map we descend to reorganisation the colour is historic she favours tulips without break find a form stick to it leave space alone like nesting birds curate the aura by implication gestures between the cradle and grave miniscule time”

The quasi-experimental approach here amplifies the visual by embedding it in a gestural flow of speech. It’s post-impressionist; not abstract, or at least not truly abstract. It is more like a montage of parts flickering together with enough rapidity to become a unified whole.

These are word pictures. Moments caught by words as solid as paint on canvas.

We are presented with a gallery of these images. Some too abstract for some tastes, some too concrete for others. But the totality of the work presents us with a form that helps each individual piece cohere to a balanced whole.

We are carried to the house itself. A moment’s travel. A gasp of wind through the warm air.

Paul Chamber’s haikus strip the language back yet further. Bare images; gasps of word.

He follows the haiku form quite closely. The 5-7-5 syllable form has been dropped (commendably, as I don’t think English is suited to it), but he retains the three-line structure, the use of seasonal words and the emphasis on the natural.

Each poem is an encounter. Rainy mornings, winter nights, summer days, we meet with crows, children, rivers and roads.

The animal haiku in particular are powerful. Encounters in the wild in the style of Priest Issa. Each is a surprise.

We are presented with a remarkably dense collection. You can feel the work of years between the slim covers of this pocket-size book.

Both collections are masterworks of concision and cohesion. I would expect nothing less from Red Ceilings, who continue to bring us the best in small scale poetics.

These are books for wandering through the world with.

Joe Darlington

Magic Moments

Norah Lange – Notes from Childhood (& Other Stories, 2021)

The older I get, the more I find myself drawn to pleasantness.

The Western classics are lacking in this regard. They rightly diagnose the general condition of life to be one of struggle. Struggle; in love, in war, in work, in survival.

Eastern classics are most accommodating, with the Japanese Tale of Genji and Chinese Story of the Stone being two grand scale epic narratives primarily concerned with tea parties, flowers, love letters and courtly manners.

So it’s not impossible to say profound things through pleasantness. It’s just, perhaps, counterintuitive. At least for our culture.

In resuscitating the work of Norah Lange, Argentine modernist and “Borges’ muse”, the translator Charlotte Whittle has done a tremendous service both to Argentine letters and to contemporary Anglophone writing.

Notes from Childhood follows 2018’s translation of People in the Room. The first was a breakthrough, but its follow-up is even more so.

Notes from Childhood is a series of very short reminiscences – the longest being four pages, most being one or two – each of which captures a moment in the idyllic childhood of the author.

First published in the 1930s, it describes a turn-of-the-century ranch house filled with siblings, relatives, friends and animals. A Latin American Little House on the Prairie.

The prose is shimmering, crystalline. We can feel the sun beating down. White dresses and the smell of pine needles.

There is a sense at once of being there, and also of the older Lange hovering over her childhood self, gazing on lovingly. Whittle contributes to this nostalgia with her own careful prose. Our protagonist speaks to us directly, despite the layers of authorship.

And the stories she tells us are captivating.

There is the older sister, so often moody and lovelorn, who sneaks out of the house to bathe naked in the moonlight. An old book told her it would make her beautiful.

There’s the younger sister believes totally in “Destiny”, and refuses to do anything on the grounds that all is prewritten. “If I fall over, it’s because I’m meant to fall over. What’s the point in tying my shoes?”

And there’s the governess who teaches entirely in proverbs. She is paid off after just one lesson. Wages in hand, she walks away saying “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”.

There are emotional moments too. Deaths. Departings. But there is no structural attempt to weave these into a climax. They simply come and go, as in real life. The moment comes and it passes.

It is far better this way, as it’s in the exquisite moment where Lange’s writing is at its best. She leads us through a story and then holds us in place, appreciating the moment.

It’s as though we’re suspended above it, looking down, admiring. There is something painterly in it. A stillness.

The moment resonates. It speaks for itself. It invites us to reside within it.

In spite of critics’ attempts to frame this as somehow a novel about a writer’s journey, or about gender construction, Lange does a remarkable job of capturing childhood unmediated. There are no adult politics here, nor the cause-and-effect of a bildunsgroman.

I, for one, am getting tired of reading about wimpy kids who find solace in reading. Lange shows us children who explore, who goes on adventures, who do magic, paint, become obsessed with counting sips of water, torment their nannies, make new friends and dare each other.

The writerliness of the Notes is in their ability to capture these experiences. Experiences common to us all despite their uniqueness.

More than anything, they are pleasant. A perfect book for summer. For a day off. For a treat. But also a tremendous literary achievement. It is a very rare thing for a book to be both.

  • Joe Darlington

Dagenham dispatches

Jon Cruddas – The Dignity of Labour (Polity)

Labour MP Jon Cruddas’s book begins with what we already know: that the Labour Party has lost it so badly it risks becoming a party of urbanistas, university graduates and the retired. A lifestyle choice, not a way of life. Maybe it already is. Cruddas sees the threat the Tories pose clearly. He sees that the Red Wall seats may all fall to them. Via a wicked Schumpeter quote, Cruddas suggests Blairism was about the production of votes, just as the commodity is about the production of surplus-value. The current decline of Labour, then, began all the way back in 1997.

For books, Cruddas picks two key sources early on: James Bloodworth, for the micro, close observation of working class life; for the macro-theoretical-intellectual, Michael Sandel. The two, he takes care to point out, need to be read in conjunction with each other, or brought together.

He’d make a good teacher, Cruddas. He anticipates your questions as he builds his argument. He also picks two films as examples, Made in Dagenham and Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. Both were filmed in the same place and released around the same time. Both of them depict the polar states of Cruddas’s constituency, Dagenham. The first – although far too nostalgic – depicts labour on the rise, people power winning battles and changing lives in the late 1960s; the second is a post-industrial picture of a generation lost to brutal nihilism. It came out one year after 2008.

In Manchester, the one party state is Labour. It has been interesting to observe the complete tanking of the Liverpool Labour Council across the way under sleaze allegations, amazingly with Derek Hatton still involved. Yet in Manchester, it seems the game has been kept just the right side of legally corrupt – hook or crook – at the same time as it has been morally indefensible for an age. Manchester seems to be an eye at the centre of the current swirling vortex of political change. Labour holds, its space is clear, but really, I often think, it probably shouldn’t be. Maybe it won’t be for long. I have all of this in my head, all the way through this book.

Cruddas though, keeps it close to Dagenham and the politics and spirit of labour. Cruddas was not convinced by the luxury automated communism moment. Nor was I. Expecting the means of production to suddenly serve us seemed like the zenith of Neoleft evanglism, 2017-style. Perhaps this was the giddy upside of the delayed millenarianism of the early 21st century, the dusty downside being the anti-vaxx movement currently filling city squares with a few hundred lost souls. As with much during that period, I think Corbynism was only casually related to it. Cruddas doesn’t buy Paul Mason’s riffs either, even though he likes Paul Mason. I feel exactly the same.

Cruddas understands Marx properly. His criticisms of the Bastanis of the Party are rooted in his understanding of the longer history of technological determinism. A new wave of AI is coming though, for sure, and Labour, both the party and the workers, are completely unprepared for it. At the very best the new wave will contain impossible to foresee outcomes, as happened after the euphoric wave of Californian new tech, leading to Web 2.0. At its worst, and Cruddas seems to rank the possibility, these mad leftist evangelisms are leaving a door ajar for the right to push wide open.

Cruddas then spends the bulk of the book on the history of work and a brilliant chapter on the return to Marx (and how). In Cruddas’s reading, the new left turn peaking in 2017 is less Corbynista than Negrista. It is rooted in operaismo, Italian Marxism. This is, I think, more a critique of the excesses of Momentum hubris, but Cruddas’s critique of the ideas – wherever they lie – is absolutely solid.

Basically, Marx’s labour theory of value has, at various times, been rejected or misunderstood. Currently, Marx’s fragment on machines is being used to suggest a technological determinist version of Marxism, which is really more easily found in David Ricardo. This fragment of Marx from the Grundrisse suggests that automation could write labour out of the picture, allowing it to organise. Hence it is technologically deterministic as well as potentially (in the mouths of its proselytizers, Cruddas is not among them) revolutionary. A networked youth is seen as rolling out past dying industries and into the bright future of post-work.

I thought Hardt and Negri’s Empire was way over the top when I read it, not long after it came out. I then sat and listened to Negri’s sheer abstractions at Fly Utopia, at Transmediale, in Berlin, in 2004. I dropped all interest in his grander theories there and then, exactly when everyone around me got giddy. The networked horizontal revolutions we actually saw were the Arab Spring and we know what happened to them. Do we have to repeat a western european workplace version of those mistakes before the penny drops?

I am acutely conscious, though, throughout these sections, how much of Cruddas’s take on the issue is home territory for me, and how much this ‘me’ that I call a home is not the rest of the world; it isn’t even the rest of the left in England. At this point I wonder if we are all like the strange tribes looking awry at the Roman legions, already arrived, with their advanced techne, from the safety of a flooded marsh. Clinging on to traditions that we fully inhabit, but which have no currency in the new world forming outside ourselves.

But Cruddas has things to say here. Possibilities for the Labour Party to save itself. Take the concern about borders seriously, for instance. Elsewhere, he describes how a party memo about appearing in front of union jacks is missing the point, but the real underlying concerns must be listened to. I get the sense of a man well-entrenched in the working classes. A big part of the problem, as he knows, is those in the Labour Party who cannot face the fact of the nativist turn in the white post-industrial voter.

Cruddas faces it, yet he doesn’t write a new Blue Labour manifesto either. He wants to get at the essence of work and its concerns. When Darwin described life he often described its being there and how it was there as one thing. I also think about that a lot when reading this book. ‘If it is there, it is working’, the ‘how’ it is there and it working is one. This applies to the knowledge worker as much as to pond life, yet the life form aspect – in the case of humans that is the social form – of work is being lost. The Labour party, the clue is in the name, lost its hold on the idea some time ago.

This is the most grounded book on Labour I have read in a very long time. Both the party and ‘work’. But it seems to be delivered by a man on his way to fallow, and that actually gives it an additional urgency. We should listen to Cruddas because he is way ahead of us. Not because he’s an intellectual – although he most definitely is one – but because he’s been on the ground where the temperature counts for a long time. He was mired in battles with ‘populism’ well before those battles went global and mainstream. As he reminds us, in 2010 Nick Griffin waited on the vote count, fully expecting the BNP to take over Dagenham Council. Cruddas has been there and done it.

A Guardian article has Cruddas ready to retire and move to a house he had built in West Ireland. Out of England. That, I have thought for some time, is probably the only real way to avoid England’s final implosion into a sort of deregulated madland. A weird antique, served by a shattered, powerless underclass. The real hit of COVID to the economy is yet to come. Money is worth next to nothing. Inflation could cause catastrophe. Brexit is also yet to be felt fully.

Not fully automated luxury communism but malfunctioning manual abject capitalism.

There’s only so much you can do. No point hanging on in a place, shielded by nothing more than evangelism. I suppose people develop an evangelical outlook because they have no choice but to live there. I get the sense that Cruddas has a fairly hard sense of reality. And choices. What is quite worrying to face is that this book feels like a parting shot, rather than an opening salvo. I fear Labour will fall further before it rises again, if it ever does.

Cruddas sees that Labour’s opportunities have been squandered. The thing New Labour embraced, globalisation – despite sounding completely ‘pan’ – had a pronounced American character, I often think. That embrace has turned into a shove of rejection. Slablike community and industry based demographics used to deliver swathes of votes: Labour as a whole way of life, to paraphrase Raymond Williams.

Now the globalised individual is atomised and imagines itself free to ‘express’ freedom US-style via the polling booth. Sadly, the atoms are all quite confidently caught in the great digital scientist’s cloud chamber. They still deliver slablike votes, because the chamber is essentially owned by the right.

Viewed through most philosophies except the giant inflated gasbag of popular liberalism, your liberty without limits has always been a chimera. And ‘the people’ have been disenfranchised by liberal economics, which has given capitalist greed an unbroken series of green lights and a fuel-injection by bailing it out in 2008. Cruddas doesn’t fudge the issue. The problem is that everyone has also been disabused of the notion of a competent capitalist elite, and yet still votes for it. In the worst cases they imagine they are rebel voters, casting for anti-elite heroes.

Cruddas understands that there is no cosmic law of justice that will simply reverse this situation because we know it to be bad. He sees some hope in the pandemic, that our bare conditions have been revealed, briefly. But I see in the news today that 70% of firms bailed out by government money are firing and rehiring. It is obvious that capitalism is ethically void, but that observation will not stop it ruling us all until we run off the cliff. The sleaze is right on the surface and the masses will vote for it.

But this book is a crucial, fixed marker in a political fog. Buy it and hold on to it.

Steve Hanson

Messianic millenarianism?

Hartmut Rosa – The Uncontrollability of the World (Polity)
Srećko Horvat – After The Apocalypse (Polity)

Hartmut Rosa’s book seems partly to be a short guide to his larger works. It isn’t pitched as one, but the text refers throughout to the more expansive and difficult books Rosa has completed. It is an accessible entry point to a philosopher I consider to be important. The reader can map the concepts out onto their own lives and experiences easily. For this alone I recommend it. The politics are there too. Rosa cites Marx, Adorno and Horkheimer, Bruno Latour, et al.

One of Rosa’s key concepts is Resonance, the idea of being in dialogue with something or someone. Simple enough on the surface, but this idea in Rosa’s hands is shot through with the unavailability of Resonance: whether we can resonate with objects, situations, other people (other subjectivities) or not, is much less in our hands than we might imagine it to be.

A key part of Rosa’s philosophy is also gathered around the idea of a world not under control, and here he explains how resonance and its elusiveness is central to that concept. The Uncontrollability of the World seems to be one of those books which came out in the global pandemic already describing it, without having been written in it (the preface signs off March 2020).

Some books seemed to be erased by that year, but this one is redoubled by it. It seems to have been written for it, before it. Rosa describes how our western polity and individual subjectivities arose out of, essentially, enlightenment rationality. A world that is first made viewable – via telescopes, microscopes – then accessible, then manageable, and finally, useful. I am reminded of Martin Jay’s work on the visual here.

But after three hundred years of this snowballing, instrumentalising activity, the world is still not controllable and we are not in control. Anyone who watched the recent Adam Curtis documentaries, their conclusions – whatever else one might say about them – were not a description of a global human situation which is finally managed. Far from it.

Srećko Horvat’s After The Apocalypse takes this statement as a given. For him, the apocalypse, climate-burnout, nuclear catastrophe, is so very possible due to escalating risk and possibility tipping-points, that we might as well say it already happened. Not only are we are living ‘in the end times’, we are living after the end, before it.

But Rosa says that we would profit from being penetrated by the world’s uncontrollability a little more, rather than remaining in the enlightenment mode of attempting to control at a distance. Because ultimately, not only do we fail to achieve the goal of control, in our attempts, we make the world more uncontrollable as we try. Surely there is no better example of this philosophical point than the proliferation of nuclear weapons since the end of WW2. The maddest, inverted logic of control-at-a-distance. I think about them all the way through, but Rosa doesn’t use nukes as an example until the very end of the book.

Many writers are making the connection between the collapse of globalisation, the rise of rightwing populism and the increased instability of world politics now. This also means the possibility of new wars, which at this point means the risk of nuclear strikes, or at best standoffs. I Hate The Lake District by Charlie Gere (MIT/Goldsmiths see my previous review) also seemed haunted by this idea. I am personally, haunted by all this, and have been – on and off, to a greater or lesser degree – since the 1980s.

My ghosts now have their own armchairs in the living room. The conclusion of this book is very pessimistic. So much so that Rosa places a caveat at the end to say that the work is just a first foray. But Emerson’s ‘things are in the saddle and ride mankind’ seems to be at peak decay in early 2021.

Some of the examples in Rosa’s book seem slight, computers not working, the cat clawing you: I can imagine a day in 1910 in which the adding machine stuck and the cat swiped out. But this does nothing to dim the unbearable glare of the central thesis.

Another MIT/Goldsmiths book, Six Concepts for the End of the World by Steve Beard, is part of this tradition. They are the most fatalistic books of critical theory I have read in a long time. Creative, playful, yes, but morbidly messianic too. Peak Libido by Dominic Pettman also seems to be part of it. I know how they feel.

But there’s something else to figure out here. Is all of this literature delayed millenarianism? It is certainly messianic in its tendencies. Horvat’s book particularly, with its Benjaminian time-manipulation. It is the inverse of Pauline ‘good news’, that the messiah has not arrived and yet, somehow, still has. It is negation’s revelation. The apocalypse has already happened, just not yet. For Horvat our position is no longer ‘socialism or barbarism’, but total reinvention of the world, or mass extinction.

But it seems to me that full millenarianism may have arrived twenty years into the new century. Can we bracket this strand of critical theory completely off from the anti-vaxxers? Yes, I think, but that they co-exist is at least interesting. Does the existence of a unanimous science, all nodding at the oncoming catastrophes, mean that a verdict of ‘delayed millenarianism’ should be ruled out? Maybe. I can’t answer it yet, it needs more prodding. To try to answer this in a facile way here would be pointless.

However we view the cultural trend of it, the concerns all of these books have are terrifyingly real. And to sign off saying ‘now we all need to remake the world, duh-duh duh-duh duh-duh‘ would be, in Rosa’s own philosophical terms, neither resonant nor transformative. It would be worse than merely crass and naive. It would be an insult to the millions of us who have to live under this newly intensified shadow. Even worse for the young and yet to be born.

There might not be any pure and innocent adult humans, but I also don’t buy the idea that we have all created this shadow either. I do not hold on to any of the leftwing evangelisms I once did. Back in 2017 and before I might have signed this article off with some worthy but ultimately empty lines about what ‘we’ must all do next.

But I can and still will imagine the ways in which the world might be different, even without hope. These books are great resources to use, to at least start thinking again.

Steve Hanson

The Slap of Flesh

Max Porter – The Death of Francis Bacon (Faber, 2021)

John Berger once wrote of Francis Bacon that his style lacked humanity. By pummelling away at the flesh, Bacon only got further and further away from the subjective core of personhood.

His creatures, his popes; they are tortured but they feel no pain. His is a world without love.

And yet, in spite of Berger’s condemnation, I can’t help but find myself drawn back to Bacon’s paintings again and again. Perhaps for the very same reasons that Berger condemns them.

To be always mutilated but never feel pain. This is the most abject loneliness. Loneliness as absolute. As totality.

Max Porter’s latest novella, The Death of Francis Bacon, attempts to paint seven “word pictures” exploring the death and dying memories of the artist. Like Bacon’s own works, they are at times realist and at times mere blurs. They are action and brutality, and there is nothing of the saccharine.

Lying in his hospital bed in Madrid, nursed by the Handmaids of Maria, the strict Sister Mercedes specifically, he experiences the horror and humiliation of his own body decaying.

He remembers his artistic failures, his bad reviews, and his sexually violent relationship with East End criminal George Dyer.

It is not a redemptive death. It approaches transcendence, but only through the always-liberating presence of memory. The memories themselves are brutal, as is what remains of his life – as brutal as his paintings – but it is the ability of the mind to wander between brutalities that offers us some promise, some hope, even if Bacon himself rejects it.

Porter’s own writing is stripped back and percussive. He utilises the white page as negative space. Punctuation abounds. Short sentences. Broken sentences. And then gaps. The space between words itself operates as a form of visual punctuation.

The words burst through the white, like fists pummelling a carcass.

The Death of Francis Bacon is a very short book, but an evocative one. It’s hard to tell whether this is an end-point for Porter’s minimalist literary journey, or merely a stopping point on his way. Despite racking up the awards for Death is a Thing with Feathers (2015), I can’t help but suspect Max Porter is a writer with his best work still ahead of him.

Brutal. Percussive. Exhausting. Cathartic. Maybe redemptive.

Porter’s Bacon is a punch to the jaw of writing.

  • Joe Darlington

The Dust Blows Back

Juan Rulfo – El Llano in Flames (Structo Press, 2019)

In Mexico, the land is treacherous. To survive, you must be stubborn.

Juan Rulfo is a legend of Mexican storytelling. His short stories contain the depth of novels, the melodrama of movies and all the passion and tragedy one expects from Latin American writing.

He isn’t well known in England. In the United States, he is known for his novel Pedro Paramo (1955). In Mexico itself it is his short story collection, El Llamos en llamas (1953), that is studied in schools, adapted into TV shows and available in all good book shops.

Stephen Beechinor has finally translated the second of these books for an English market, and Structo, a literary magazine specialising in “slipstream” lit, founded its own publishing subsidiary, Structo Press, in 2019 purely to bring it out.

It had been well worth the wait. Despite its slim size, El Llano in Flames feels like an odyssey. A panoramic view of the sprawling Mexican deserts. The land where nothing grows and the hard men that try to live there.

The book begins with “They Gave us the Land”; a story of poor dirt farmers, trekking across a waterless plateau only to learn that the government has granted them that desert land for farming.

“A thousand acres of land, just for you!”

“But… there is no water on that land.”

It is a story foretelling much to come.

We meet a teacher, broken by his attempts to reform the dirt farmers. In the end, he realises there is nothing to be done. If they want to get out of starvation, they must move. This, too, they refuse.

Their dead live under the dry earth. They could not leave them behind.

Men get caught up in murders. They live their lives in fear, then die sapped of everything but their regrets. Revolutionaries rove through the land, rustling cattle and burning crops in the name of high causes, only to be hunted and killed; leaving devastation behind.

We are left with the sense of a haunted land. A land where nothing moves forwards; things die faster than they grow, every plan ends in tragedy and betrayal.

But in among the pain are moments of such poignancy that one almost envies the people of the Llanos. Only at such extremes of experience can one truly sacrifice. Only here is one tested, and can triumph or fall.

The man who carries his dying son on his shoulders, across two valleys in the heat; not for the sake of his son, but in memory of his dead mother.

The boy born with a hard head, who stays up all night carrying a plank of wood, bashing the frogs that disturb his mother’s sleep. In the morning he thuds his head into the ground, over and over, so it sounds like the big, booming drums at the church.

The woman they call “belly-up”, who had and lost a dozen kids by a dozen fathers, only to die as the surviving one is born.

These are tales of great intensity, sincerity and truth. They are strange, but only as the world itself is strange. They are also masterful in their concision. I could not name another writer who could do so much in such a short space.

This is a book that deserves to be read. A classic of world literature that Beechinor and Structo have finally brought to our shores.

Joe Darlington