2017 End of Year Review No.5

1) WG Sebald – The Emigrants

In the final part of WG Sebald’s The Emigrants, the unnamed narrator receives a bundle of letters from the aging artist Max Ferber who is at work in his studio in a disused factory in Manchester. Like the narrator, Ferber is a German migrant to the city. Yet, while the narrator first arrived to work at the University of Manchester in the mid-1960s, Ferber’s arrival was much earlier and wrapped up in European anti-Semitism and the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany. It is only late into their twenty-five year friendship that Ferber begins to tell of his experience fleeing Munich for the UK as a teenager in 1939. The packet of letters that Ferber passes on were written by his mother and detail her life and childhood in the predominantly Jewish village of Kissingen, Bavaria, prior to the Holocaust. After reading the letters, the narrator travels to the village in order to retrace the life of Ferber’s family, but instead finds that the village has all but erased its pre-war past.

The Emigrants deals with the complex relationship between memory, forgetting and place as they weave through experiences and stories of forced migration. What was forgotten doesn’t always stay forgotten and what was once submerged in silence can suddenly bubble to the surface. The Emigrants is formed of four episodes, including the story of Max Ferber, which are drawn from Sebald’s own encounters and relationships – encounters, he has argued, that would not have taken place in post-war Germany, but rather among German-Jewish and Lithuanian-Jewish migrants in Manchester, Norwich, France and the USA. The work has been called ‘unclassifiable’. Sebald’s prose operates on the border between biography and fiction and its episodic and exploratory narrative structure eschews the usual conventions of the novel. Enigmatic photographs are also inserted throughout the text. They accompany the personal histories being told and re-told, but more often than not raise more questions than answers.

I read and re-read The Emigrants throughout my PhD as I carried out ethnographic research alongside refused asylum seekers living destitute in Manchester. And I read it once again in 2017. With each reading I felt that Sebald’s writing spoke as much to the crafts of sociology and ethnography as it did to literature. In the story of Max Ferber, it is not only the letters of Ferber’s mother and his own revelations towards the end of his life that drive the narrator to re-tell the story of Ferber and his family, it is also the erasure of this history in Kissingen, in Sebald’s home state of Bavaria, that compel the narrator to write. Sebald has referred to a ‘conspiracy of silence’ in post-war Germany – a withholding of information out of shame and guilt (which is markedly different to the silence that can accompany traumatic experiences). Personal and political silences are continually negotiated in the text and the narrator recognises that the re-telling of these personal histories is an always incomplete task. It is, he admits, impossible to do justice to the experiences of Max Ferber and his family. Yet, while there is an incompleteness to each episode, Sebald continually anchors the writing in descriptions of place. The story of Ferber takes us from Manchester to Munich and to Kissingen, before returning to Manchester once again. These are places of memory and forgetting, connection and disconnection and erasure and new encounters. These are points of departure and arrival where the complex and dynamic relationship between memory and place are borne out. And in all of this, finally, I think it’s fair to say that Sebald has written some of the most poignant descriptions of Manchester that have ever been put to paper.

2) Mari Akasaka – Vibrator

Vibrator. Machinic self-pleasure. Vibrator. The low, steady rumble of a lorry on the expressways criss-crossing northern Honshu, Japan. Mari Akasaka’s 1999 novel is a steam-of-consciousness journey through the inner and outer landscapes of Rei Hayakawa, a free-lance journalist in her early thirties. The novella opens in a late-night Tokyo convenience store as Rei stares at the booze selection, deciding which bottles of wine and gin to take home for the night. Voices emerge and submerge in her mind. They are fragmented and intensely critical and merge with the banner headlines of the lifestyle magazines on sale. Her inner voices take us through her depression, alcoholism and eating-disorders. A careful, dark calculation on how to balance binge-drinking and bulimia. ‘In a man’s world, it’s easier to get by as a woman like this’, she says to herself. Time compresses. Or it expands. And thirty pages in we, the readers, don’t know if Rei has been standing in front of the wine rack for 5 seconds or fifty minutes. She eyes up a lorry driver, Takatoshi Okabe, who’s passing through the convenience store and eventually joins him in his lorry parked outside. The next morning they are on their way to Niigata, a delivery journey across Honshu. Takatoshi and Rei talk, and share, and drink shōchu, and touch and fuck. The stream-of-consciousness narration is only broken by moments of conversation between the two as they drive along the expressway. How much of what they share is fantasy and projection and how much is reality remains an open question. And whether or not the entire journey is a fantasy remains an open question too – the excellent 2003 film adaptation directed by Ryūchi Hiroki is more decisive on the matter. Vibrator is a closed-circuit journey of departure and return. It is James Joyce’s Ulysses with the floor punched all the way through to Homer’s Odyssey, but this time arriving back in turn-of-the-millennium Tokyo with Rei as its troubled hero.

3) 9Mother9Horse9Eyes9 – The Interface Series

In the spring of 2016 a series of posts began appearing on seemingly random Reddit threads. They were written by a user with the handle 9Mother9Horse9Eyes9 and offered a compelling, yet highly fragmented, narrative about mysterious ‘flesh interfaces’. Each new post added to the story while remaining strangely out of place in the context of the thread it was posted to. An engaging and experimental work of science fiction was emerging on Reddit. Initial posts were written from the perspective of an unnamed CIA operative, but then other voices began to appear – American soldiers in Vietnam and Iwo Jima, a Treblinka administrator, a hippy living in Death Valley, a cat, a dog . . . The narrative seemed to be developing an alternative history of the 20th century, centred on the appearance of ‘flesh interfaces’. These were biological devices constructed under the collective influence of LSD. The flesh interfaces were described as meaty, throaty, vaginal passages that could be digitally connected to information flows and were possible portals to other, alien worlds. Some descriptions were dry and clinical, others took the form of grotesque epiphanies that borrowed imagery from the Book of Revelation. The gallery of voices meant that no cohesive, linear account emerged and it was left to the reader to fill in the gaps.

Eventually, an authorial voice surfaced among the posts. He claimed he was an American male in his mid-thirties and a severe alcoholic. The posts, he said, were speculations on possible pasts in order to provide insight into possible – and most often horrific – futures for humanity. He did not refer to his writing as ‘fiction’, but rather as ‘information’ that he was providing to the reader. As the ‘author’ posted more, he made more and more references to Phillip K Dick, the science-fiction writer who not only succumbed to substance abuse, but also, openly, blurred the boundaries between fiction and delusion. This constant tension between fiction and delusion is something that defined the writing in the ‘Interface Series’, as it became known. Whether the ‘author’ that announced himself in these posts is ‘real’ or another voice among others doesn’t really matter. He was someone to hang the fragmented narrative on. And his descriptions of his own alcoholism were moving and profound. They cut to the bone and were testament to the quality of writing being offered by 9Mother9Horse9Eyes9.

The ‘Interface Series’ was eventually picked up by national media. The BBC, The Guardian, and Vice all wrote pieces on the developing work. As the series of posts came to an end, the author admitted that he found it easier to create new narrative arcs – new voices – rather than to bring anything to a coherent close. Yet, with each new post, the authorial voice began to collapse into some of the narrative arcs that had been developed. Right until the end the writing remained vivid and maintained its disturbing oscillation between fiction and delusion. There are now rumours of a book and rumours that the whole thing has been a viral marketing campaign. There are a lot of rabbit holes on the internet (and there is a lot of terrible writing), but this is an internet rabbit hole – or flesh interface – worth going down.

4) Sophocles – Oedipus at Colonus

In Sophocles’ ancient tragedy, Oedipus at Colonus, the dying exile and wanderer, Oedipus, arrives outside Athens. The Athenians are cautious and wary, viewing the stranger at their gates as both a potential threat and a potential asset. Oedipus is the former king of Thebes, a fallen hero who had unwittingly killed his father and married his own mother before being banished from the city. Blind and infirm and tainted by his past, when the Athenians recognise him they initially plead for him to leave as he may pollute the city with his presence. But, Oedipus appeals to Athens as the ‘City of Justice’ that welcomes a suffering stranger. The city’s political integrity and self-image are at stake in how it deals with Oedipus and they eventually accept him as one of their own as he is buried at Colonus, on the outskirts of Athens, confirming that Athens is, indeed, a just city.

Sophocles likely composed Oedipus at Colonus in 406 BC as a political crisis engulfed the Athenian city-state during the Peloponnesian War. And it was first performed in 401 BC after Athens’ catastrophic defeat to Sparta. In this context, the image of Athens as the ‘City of Justice’ produced in the drama was an idealised fantasy floating above the chaos of Athens the actual city. This staged ideal can be read as an attempt to mask the real wounds and problems of the city. And the migrant – in the figure of Oedipus – was being instrumentalised by Sophocles for this task. There is a lesson here for today: how we treat migrants, and our obsessions over who deserves to belong and who doesn’t, most often says more about us, our own hang-ups and socio-economic problems and how we collectively perceive ourselves then it does about anyone else.

5) William Gibson – Neuromancer

Simstim, Turing Police, construct, cyberspace and the matrix. Like any good work of science-fiction, William Gibson’s 1984 novel, Neuromancer, is full of neologisms – some of which have become vernacular. This is in no small part down to the Wachowski’s The Matrix Trilogy which leans heavily on aspects of Gibson’s novel. At its most basic, Neuromancer is about the self-mastery of artificial intelligence and attempts to restrain this. It’s also about, very broadly, the constantly changing, and sometimes invasive, relation between technology, the body and consciousness. In Gibson’s world, a person needs to directly connect their nervous system to a console in order to access cyberspace (or the internet). The central character, Case, has had his nervous system surgically tampered with in order to prevent him from ever ‘jacking-in’ to cyberspace again. At the opening of the novel he’s a washed-up former hacker who roams the streets of Chiba, Japan, where there is an underground economy built around illicit surgery, body modification, organ exchange, amphetamines and prostitution. Other characters exist on the more extreme ends of this body-consciousness-technology nexus. There is ‘Armitage’ – an AI fabricated personality patched onto a wounded and very disturbed soldier. And there is ‘Dixie Flatline’ – the consciousness of the dead hacker McCoy Pauley stored on a ‘construct’ (or hard drive).

The characters move between Tokyo, Paris, Istanbul and orbital stations with ease, seemingly instantaneously. In the novel space becomes compressed. And at the novel’s close an AI reveals that it has begun communicating with another AI in Alpha Centauri. While humans – in their various states – move globally, the AIs are now interstellar. In Gibson’s world, spatial differentiation through distance is much less important than the binary between cyberspace and the ‘real’ world of flesh and bodies and matter. And throughout the novel Case hooks up to his console with electrodes and jumps between the two.

For Gibson, science-fiction is an ‘artefact of the moment’ – a speculation on what is possible through the lens of the present. It is a constant toggle between there being ‘nothing new under the sun’ and ‘everything having changed absolutely’. Neuromancer was written at the dawn of the internet-age and mass access to digital technology. And in this novel Gibson was attempting to offer up a ‘poetry of the emergent language of the digital’. It’s a language caught up in the tug-of-war between novelty and the same, the familiar and the strange. And these new, emergent words can easily lodge themselves into everyday language or just as easily become dated. Terms such ‘modem’ and ‘virus’, which appear in the novel, have either fallen into disuse or have become firmly embedded in our new vocabulary of the digital. Gibson’s description of cyberspace, with its blocky shapes, now seems very retro and based on early 1980s computer graphics. And case’s console, which he uses to ‘jack-in’ to the matrix, has the feel of an Atari 2600. Yet, in other respects the novel remains fresh and even prescient – from the open possibilities of artificial intelligence to the constant, sweeping technological change that defines our present. Just like in Gibson’s novel, the high-tech is continually collapsing into the mundane and uneven social landscape of everyday life.

Neuromancer taps into the essential relationship between technology and the human. The body is technologically supported while consciousness adapts to these new technologies. In some ways this is a primordial nexus. While sitting down to write this review, I’ve had to put aside my crutches as I recover from a torn calf muscle. They are a rudimentary technological support for my injured body. This primal relation between technology and the body is both a part of humanity’s distant past and its continuing future. In the novel, the character Molly has surgical intervention to heighten her reflexes and quicken her movements. She also has retractable razors implanted into her finger tips and lenses permanently inserted over her eyes that relay digital information alongside her vision. These sorts of body modifications are part of the hyperbolic speculation that is a staple of science fiction. Yet, they also speak to the present. I’m staring at my laptop late into the night, writing this review. Its screen relays digital information onto my retinas via the blue-light spectrum. It’s the same blue-light emanating from the screens of our mobile phones, computers and tablets. We may not have Molly’s permanent lenses, but we don’t really need them as our interaction with digital information through various screens is already a ubiquitous part of our daily life with all the haptic and neurological adaptations that this entails. While Case ‘jacks-in’ and ‘jacks-out’ of cyberspace throughout Gibson’s novel – a process that involves electrodes – we have a more fluid, and more constant, relation to the internet. It’s become a natural part of our daily social existence. There is nothing new under the sun while everything is changing absolutely.

– Mark Rainey


Back to school

Sam Thorne – School: A Recent History of Self-Organized Art Education (Sternberg Press 2017)

Sam Thorne’s School is not just, as its subtitle suggests, a ‘recent history of self-organized art education’, surveying the ‘sudden density’ of alternative of art schools that have emerged since the early 2000s. It’s also a timely contribution to an ongoing debate about the nature and purpose of higher education, who should bear the costs – and the expected and desired outcomes for those who participate.

Implicit is the conundrum of the role an art school might usefully be expected to fulfil, given that somebody cannot be taught to ‘be’ an artist. Josef Beuys’ famous saying ‘everyone is an artist’ recurs again and again in the book. If everyone is an artist, then, the purpose of art schools is not to create artists, but to provide an environment in which artists might develop and realise their potential, meet other artists, have time, space and resources to test and experiment, and to challenge and be challenged.

For this reason, the overall emphasis of the art schools featured in the book is less on practical and vocational training and more about creating a discursive environment which is flexible, collaborative and self-directed. The school in this sense is less a place where the student is a fee-paying customer, taking on crippling debt in order to purchase an off-the-peg education delivered in expensive buildings, and more a place to go to learn and change through process and experience. This is an education which is not separate from the real world, but takes place throughout the everyday, and concerns not just knowledge and skills but thoughts and attitudes to life. It’s interdisciplinary: art schools are not just a place where one might find painters and sculptors, but activists, writers, cooks and musicians. This education does not end at the close of the school day, once students have left the building or graduate, but is something students take with them into the future. It’s less about giving students the keys to enter elite international art networks, and the ability to participate in global art markets, than about developing artists’ abilities to criticise, critique and suggest alternatives.

In School, Thorne explores the different approaches that have been taken to providing this education. He grounds artist-led education historically in initiatives such as the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College, before presenting a series of interviews with alternative art schools around the world, from European case studies to projects in Cuba, the United States, Latin America, Russia, the Middle East and Africa.

Sometimes these schools mirror the formal education systems, whether in language – several adopt the name of ‘school’, ‘university’ or ‘academy’ – or in their expectations of the students, such as writing a formal dissertation. These alternative schools may also have symbiotic relationships to the academy, through affiliation, funding or staffing. Often, too, students have already been through post-graduate education – the alternative art school is supplementary to it rather than a replacement.

Thorne shows that what does separate these schools from established institutions is their tendency to be small-scale, rooted in community and specific in their response to local context. Among the case studies highlighted are universities that are nomadic, moving to different cities, those which take place within the domestic space of the home, and those which suggest the atelier model, with students acting in a role that is akin to assistants within a studio system.

The more interesting interviews are those in which the challenges faced by artists and art students are most apparent, due to economic, social or political constraints, or which take place in areas with little tradition of mainstream non-academic art education: it’s in cities such as Ramallah and St Petersburg that alternative, critical education feels most daring, urgent and necessary.

Thorne made the conscious decision to focus on the founders of alternative art schools. In a book expounding non-hierarchical and collaborative education it feels a little odd that key, driving individuals and personalities are highlighted at the expense of those who have participated in, taught at or graduated from alternative art schools. The ideas and motivations behind the schools therefore come across much more strongly than the feeling of actually studying there.

These alternative art schools, too, appear as a series of experiments and one-off projects rather than long-term, sustainable alternatives to the market-driven system of higher education. However, as Thorne points out, even if they don’t offer an alternative route to the established system they offer ‘modest proposals’ for the type of education that might be delivered in the art school of the future.

– Natalie Bradbury

Down the dark rabbit hole…

Julie Egdell – Alice in Winterland (Smokestack Books)

As a lover of Lewis Carrol’s ‘Alice’, I was initially hesitant to read this collection, but I came away feeling enthralled by the atmosphere of the poetry though with a slight after-chill. The book left a lasting impression upon me.

Egdell uses Lewis Carrol’s ‘Alice’ as a way to look at transitions and being an adult in the world, particularly her experience of living in Russia. She uses the original works effectively and with caution and respect, in order to frame other issues.

My favourite two poems come near the end of the book and the first one is ‘Something from Alice’ with excellent use of images and language. For example, the line: ‘I emerged from the belly of my outer skin’ is inspired and works on many levels. Egdell successfully plays with words, metaphor and meaning and also describes the harsh reality of the realisation in adulthood that life is hard.

The second poem I really liked follows the one just mentioned and is named ‘Dreamchild’. Although the poem has an apparently cheering title the poem discusses death. It includes a line that makes reference to a ‘nothing game’. A ‘nothing game’ is very like something Carrol may have written and invented but, to my knowledge, did not. This poem however is far darker than Carrol’s Alice and left me quite unsettled.

The contrast Egdell portrays between childhood ‘fluffiness’ with references to children’s fairy stories, literature and myths, and experiences, and on being a person in the world (which can be a cold place – in many ways) gets into your bones. The feeling it resulted in for me was dread, as opposed to fear, with a bit of low energy excitement thrown in. The collection becomes darker and darker as it moves on and Egdell successfully keeps pace in the collection by interweaving styles and content, encouraging us all the time to get to the end of her journey with her.

– Sally Barrett

2017 End of Year Review No.4

Some books which have made an impression on me this year, presented unsystematically and in no particular order…

As someone who’s spent the last few year being excited about the work of Chris Kraus it was a great thrill to get the chance to attend a reading she gave, this year, at Waterstones, Deansgate. Kraus’s appearance in Manchester was in support of her new book After Kathy Acker – the first book on this Top 5 of the year list of mine – which is Kraus’s biography of the great 70s/80s punk literary experimentalist who appropriated, and made her own work from everyone from Milton and Dickens right through to Harold Robbins.

Kraus’s book is a scrupulously researched run through of Acker’s life and achievements but, as well, it’s also a portrayal of the various literary/bohemian milieus Acker existed in and moved through: artists, filmmakers, writers and musicians helping each other and supporting each other and, just as often, stabbing each other in the back . . . It’s a tremendously exciting read and very evocative of a time and place I dearly wish I’d known.

Two writers younger than Acker who yet moved in some of the same circles as her are Lynne Tillman and Mary Gaitskill; and whilst reading Kraus’s Acker book, by chance, I came across books by both Tillman and Gaitskill in charity shops . . . And though I’m not going to include on this list anything by either Tillman or Gaitskill I will heartily recommend, in particular, Tillman’s Motion Sickness and Haunted Houses and Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin.

Maggie Nelson is a writer seeming to be exploring some of the similar areas to Kraus, the intersections between autobiography, art-writing and critical theory, and, though she’s someone who’s been around for a while, Nelson’s a writer I only got around to reading this year. This year I read, from Nelson, first off, her Bluets followed by The Art of CrueltyBluets was the standout title for me and so takes the second position on this Top 5 list. It’s a meditation on Nelson’s relationship to the colour blue charting, as well, some of the historical uses the colour has been put to. The book is poetic, moving and profound. And, at the time I read it, I hadn’t encountered anything quite like it before. It’s only a slim book but one which contains an awful lot.

Whilst poetry has long been my primary writing activity I haven’t done that much of it, comparatively speaking, over the last couple of years, having been busy – instead – on a seemingly never-ending, ever changing book-length prose work; my reading of poetry has also slipped a bit . . . This year, poetry-wise, it’s been just Eileen Myles’s Collected I Must be Living Twice; Nicanor Parra’s Anti-Poems and Neruda’s Elemental Odes which seem to have left an impression on me. Room for none of those on this list though . . .

In the constantly threatening to topple book pile by my bed I’d say its film-related texts that have supplanted poetry; this past year I’ve got through a load of film stuff . . . theory; histories and biographies. The ones I’ve enjoyed most would probably be Robin Wood’s very precise, detailed survey of 6 of Hitchcock’s films; Jean Luc-Godard’s collected film writing, edited by Tom Milne; Robert B Ray’s The Avant-Garde finds Andy Hardy and Placing Movies by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

The Rosenbaum, in particular, impressed me a lot and takes the third spot on this list. Rosenbaum, a long-standing movie critic for the likes of Sight and Sound, the Village VoiceFilm Comment and, latterly, the Chicago Reader has an encyclopaedic knowledge of movies and his writing is never less than fascinating. The essays collected in Placing Movies include considerations of Barthes on cinema-going and extended meditations on some of my favourite directors including Jacques Rivette and Bela Tarr. Also, the list of movies I found myself noting down, movies I hadn’t seen but wanted to, grew longer almost page by page as I made my way through Rosenbaum. 2018 definitely looks like being a year of filling in some gaps in my movie-watching record as well as further investigations into Rosenbaum’s back catalogue.

A new area of reading, for me, this year, has been art writing; some of the titles I’ve enjoyed include Eileen Myles’s The Importance of Being Iceland; Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World; Arthur C Danto’s What is Art?; and Grayson Perry’s Playing to the Gallery. The art book which blew me away though, this past year, and which I’m going to put in this list at number 4 is Hal Foster’s Bad New Days: a survey of a handful of contemporary artists plus an attempt to identify and analyse certain theoretical concerns recognisable behind the work of the artists Foster has focussed upon.

I found the book demanding but, also, endlessly exciting. Every couple of pages, it felt like, I was being introduced to some new idea; ideas not just to do with art but to do with psychoanalysis, critical theory and political resistance. As per Rosenbaum, I expect next year will see me digging deeper in Foster’s work.

Finally, the number 5 spot of this list is going to be occupied collectively, by a rather random selection of a few of the books I’ve read this past 12 months which appear, from my perspective of today, to have left some kind of imprint in my brain. Firstly, there’s Pierre Guyotat’s autobiographical Coma detailing the deterioration of his health which led, eventually, to him falling into a coma in the pursuit of his literary vision. An unsurprisingly intense read which, however, encouraged me to seek out other translations of Guyotat. Renata Adler’s Speedboat: a collage of impressions; snippets of conversations; half-finished stories; dialogue overheard on the street; and advertising slogans and things off TV which seemed to me to add up to a much fresher, newer way of creating ‘fiction’ and, as well, an example that, it could be argued, hasn’t really been followed up. Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence: Wharton being a writer I’d long been convinced might prove hard-work, and hard-work of the not particularly rewarding variety I was, to my surprise, blown away by this novel. A beautifully written, stylish account of love and manners amongst the upper class new Yorkers of the early 20th century; I loved it and currently have several more Wharton novels sat on my shelf awaiting their turn to be read.  Finally, I want to mention Julio Cortazar’s Blow-Up: a short story collection of tales of the uncanny and strange  featuring Axolotl obsession and young men who vomit bunny rabbits. Lots of sci-fi-esque effects happening in non-sci-fi settings. Weird as anything; also brilliant.

. . . and having finished this list I’m, immediately, remembering more books from the past year that I’ve enjoyed and which deserve a mention here but, you know, it’s Sunday morning and I want some breakfast, so I’ll end this here.

– Richard Barrett 

2017 End of Year Review No.3

Although the task at hand for MRB contributors was to pick the top five reads of their own year, regardless of the year of publication, I couldn’t resist the challenge of attempting to keep it current. For my end of year review I therefore set myself the task of only including books published in 2017.

Having made an initial list, narrowed it down, picked my top five, and only then checked the publication date, I am sorry to report that I have failed in my task. One book on my list came out in December 2016 (I was pretty close!) and another comes out in January (I forgot mine was an advance review copy – oops!). After a brief moment of reflection, I have decided to stick to my decisions. I’ll try harder next year.

1) Wladimir Velminski – Homo Sovieticus: Brain Waves, Mind Control and Telepathic Destiny, Erik Butler (trans.). MIT Press, 2017. pp. 128.

I have the all-knowing algorithm to thank for this first choice. I don’t know how they found out that Soviet mind control experiments are exactly my jam (telepathy?), but once they did the MIT Press were tweeting at me harder than a drunk president at midnight.

After giving way to such elementary suggestion I found this short, concise book to be packed with fascinating historical insights. It’s a flyover of the whole Soviet era: from the 1920s constructivists measuring the perfect hammering trajectory for robotic workers, to 1960s Cold War telepathic spying, to the programmes aired in 1989 attempting to hypnotise dissenting Germans as the Berlin Wall fell. In some ways weird and wacky, the core of the analysis nevertheless shows how close these experiments were to mainstream scientific thinking under Marxist conditions.

2) Mindy Johnson, Ink and Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation, Disney Editions, 2017. pp.384.

From one secret science to another. Johnson’s massive A2 full-colour book is perhaps the most important work of historical recovery I’ve read this year. It focuses on the inkers and painters of Disney’s golden age; the women responsible for turning pencil sketches on paper into fully-coloured and perfectly line-weighted cels. Previous writing on this subject has concentrated on the segregation between male animators and women inkers and painters, coming to the erroneous conclusion that ink and paint was therefore a lesser art form. Johnson instead devotes her energies to telling the inside story of this previously hidden art through interviews and a deep archive dive. I haven’t finished it yet (A2 isn’t a great size of book for reading on the tram!) but so far it’s been revelatory. I can’t guarantee the quality of the ending because I’ve not read it yet.

3) M.D. Penman – The Shattered, Eimurian Tales, 2017.

Having spent a truly irrational amount of money on indie comics this year I just had to include one in my end of year review. Penman’s book-length The Shattered is as close to a masterpiece as I have encountered in the medium this year. Its fantasy world has depth and believability to it, its narrative raises complex ideas while being perfectly paced, and there are some genuinely heartbreaking moments in it. On the third reading I also realised that it’s a comment on the refugee crisis, which should recommend it both for being politically astute and for its thematic understatement. This is a book to be reread, and a great introduction to indie comics for those who have yet to discover this wage-consuming world of wonders.

4) Ann Quin – The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments, Jennifer Hodgson, ed. And Other Stories, 2018. pp.192.

Okay, so this one isn’t out yet, but I’ve already read it and reviewed it (hyperlink? – Ed) and, most importantly, that review racked up a lot of likes. As a long-time fan of Ann Quin there is something satisfyingly comprehensive in this collection. Where her oeuvre previously consisted of four books and a disparate collection of stories and fragments scattered across rare collections and lost magazines, it is now very definitively five books. It also serves as an excellent overview of her career for new readers, which is my excuse for including it in here.

5) Trebor Scholz – Uberworked and Underpaid: How Workers are Disrupting the Digital Economy, Polity Press, 2016. pp.242.

The final book in my top 5 of 2017 is actually from 2016, but I didn’t receive my copy until 2017 so we’ll count it. Scholz’ study of the modern landscape of labour covers casualisation, data harvesting, the exploitation hidden behind “automation”, gamification and a series of radical alternatives which have arisen in response. There is a vast amount of hogwash that has been published in recent years about changes in our work and the digital landscape, most of which take a small, singular facet of the complex whole and use it to foresee utopias or dystopias. By moving rapidly between different areas of change Scholz has produced what I consider to be the first real panoramic view of post-2008 digitised work. It is thoroughly researched and combines a mass of interviews with the hard economic and technological facts in a way which, as someone who has worked in these areas, makes me feel like he actually knows what he’s talking about (a refreshing experience). This book might be a year old now but I still think it has the most to say about today of any other I’ve read.

– Joe Darlington

2017 End of Year Review No.2

All the books and other publications I enjoyed enough in 2017 to tweet about them:


Miranda Doyle, A Book of Untruths: A Memoir, 2017:

“Just finished @Miranda_J_Doyle’s new memoir. Really enjoyed its approach to storytelling & truth telling.”

Tom Jeffreys, Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot, 2017:

“Really enjoyable holiday reading (review copy for @MancReviewBooks) – strong on landscape & its links to culture, authority, identity, etc.”
Richard and Sally Barrett, 67, 100, Sometimes 10, 2017:
“The publication I’ve enjoyed most recently: @Bazzabarrett76 & @disappearingmac’s comic/tragic poems inspired by buses, people and life.”

Richard Brook, Manchester Modern, 2017:

“The book’s a real thing of beauty – and a great resource & guide to Greater Manchester’s twentieth century buildings!”

Corridor8, Ripe, 2017:

“Belatedly (bought months ago & only just read): really enjoyed this publication bringing together writing on art, erotica & food production.”

Chapel Street Community Arts, Mind the Gap, 2017:
“Picked up this free publication yesterday: interesting photography project on contrasts & inequalities in inner-city & suburban Salford.”

Non-2017 publications

Jason Orton and Ken Worpole, the New English Landscape, 2013:

“Currently exploring the marshy coastlines and muddy creeks of north Essex. Really enjoying this holiday reading!”

Living Art Museum, Archive on the Run, 2013:

“A very nice book reflecting on the Living Museum, a really interesting project & collection founded by Icelandic artists in 1978.”

Josh Cohen, The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark, 2013:

“Current train journey reading. Really like his way of writing blending personal experience/memory with psychoanalytical history & theory.”
“Also an interesting read in relation to a piece I’ve been working on around ‘personal troubles, public issues’.”

Jackie Kay, Trumpet, 1998:
“Just finished reading Jackie Kay’s Trumpet for @Coop_CollegeUK and @CooperativesUK’s new #HolyoakeHouse reading group & absolutely loved it!”

Jane Jacobs, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, 1961 (despite only being a quarter of the way through, this merited three tweets): 

“Finally reading this, after many years of meaning to. Lots of it already feels so familiar, because of hearing her ideas talked about so much!”

“Her writing about the ‘daily ballet’ of New York is some of the best writing I’ve read about NY (speaking as someone who spent their teens reading writing about NY!) and maybe cities in general.”

“(My other favourite bit so far has been the comments about ‘special-interest communities’ in cities, and the way in which people with special interests find each other and exchange ideas across the whole city, rather than just small neighbourhoods!).”

– Natalie Bradbury

More trouble with lichen

Drew Milne – In Darkest Capital (Carcanet)

Drew Milne has published with Salt and other revered poetry presses. His work is solidly structural, but it is also fluid. It is a combination of a quite hard formalism and looser riffing. I can only reach for jazz metaphors, but this work hits me like the moment of post-modal hard bop, when bands were tight and free at the same time, the Coltrane of Giant Steps and Favourite Things, for instance.

But Milne’s credentials are Marxist and academic, ecological and political, declaring himself ‘in solidarity with lichens against capital.’ I am immediately taken to the sequence in Patrick Keiller’s third Robinson film, The Robinson Institute (BFI) where we get a series of views of lichen on a road sign. They grow over the illustrations of human routeways, ‘our’ supposed mastery of geography. They indicate their own ecology and cosmology and this collection seems to hint at a similar ambition. Cover it all over in beautiful green sleep for decades until something emerges.

Keiller’s Robinson Institute also contains a monologue about the Speenhamland agreement of 1795 and accounts of rural uprising, over shots of a neatly clipped industrialised rural without a riot in sight. The descriptions explain how sections of this bucolic view are owned by overseas corporations and companies.

For very good reasons, all of these things ghost my reading of In Darkest Capital. Milne is the essential antidote to the accelerationism of the Nick Land that ended up producing ‘Dark Enlightenment’.

In Darkest Capital has the sense of ‘In Darkest Africa’, and here is Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation, that capitalism begins with a defibrillator jolt of genocide and an injection of the raw materials that would have been available to the dead. It is its shift from chemistry to biology. Schumpeter didn’t agree, but after protesting oil wars for much of the first half of my life, I don’t agree with Schumpeter. Capitalism is, then, as ‘primitive’ as it gets.

But what makes this a collection that should be with us for a thousand years is its use of language. There are tens of thousands of chumpy leftwing writers and hundreds of cringemakingly worthy leftist poets, with their middle class fuzzyheaded notions of the loss of pits and factory work, without ever having gone in one that wasn’t already a museum.

Milne’s work avoids all these deadly, suffocating traps. It manages to somehow align itself with a europhile notion of avant garde formalism without being totally indulgent. It manages to simultaneously be bleakly, blearily of the deracinating landscapes of late capitalism, while retaining a skewering micro critique linked to a macro overview.

It is academic poetry though. We get references to Aristotle’s notion of ‘entelechy’, a sort-of self-organising motive force, and words familiar to Marxists such as ‘verstehen’ and German Idealist philosophy and its critics emerging in Marx and onwards. The nods and references are there, but unlike some leftwing poets it isn’t too self-aware, particularly in the poems that appear later in the collection. Sometimes the huge signs of, say, ‘Habermas’ seem overbearing, included in titles, but what comes after always gives the scratchy, scrambled lie to the monumental signifier.

Suddenly, Milne writes of the Halifax spreadsheet and having worked there as a designer on their report and accounts, watching 9/11 happen on the vast marketing digital screen, it gives me a chill. It feels like the long-dead tradition of prophecy has been revived. But I must be very clear, these are surfaces, but lichen surfaces, growing, moving, not staying still. I introject into them, finding fertile ground there. These poems scramble meaning in order to take the slow organic journey towards new forms.

This is a writer who understands that meaning is made and re-made across facades, in clusters of complexity, not in ‘depth’. But these surfaces crawl over and cover the neatly ordered default cultural landscape, giving a sense of thin hope in a world with little left in it.

This is useful. This is solid work. There is no pompous introduction by A Big Somebody. This is a book to live in and grow in, and through. One for the big list, until the end of our time.

2017 End of Year Review No.1

To cap off 2017, Manchester Review of Books contributors have written a ‘Top 5’ of things they have read over the year.

The brief was very open. This could be new books, or books they have just got around to, a 17th century manuscript, a strange fanzine, a newspaper article, or a mix of all of them.

I am going to write about five clusters of reading that have emerged over the year. I can see them, in little piles, from where I write, by empty coffee cups and notebooks. Here goes.

Cluster 1. The first version of A Book of the Broken Middle came out early in January 2017, so I put away the theology. However, I carried on reading around the 17th and 18th centuries. Peter Linebaugh (et al) The London Hanged, Many Headed Hydra and Albion’s Fatal Tree (Verso) Christopher Hill and an anthology of writing from the Stuart time called Divine Right and Democracy (Penguin). Much of the latter was new to me.

This was a good place from which to begin Cluster 2, which includes Roberto Unger’s political trilogy (Verso). I personally disavow party-line orthodox Marxism completely for a kind of Marxism that focuses on structural conditions without fetishising them, or simply taking historical tropes – what Unger calls the ‘society as artifact’ – as their basis.

‘What is assembled now?’ is the question to ask, not ‘what did Lenin say?’ or which party might one align oneself with today. This might seem like post-Marxism, but actually it tallies with writers such as David Harvey, who I have also been re-reading.

Our time consists of what Unger describes as ‘…the tedious, degrading rhythm of history – with its long lulls of collective narcolepsy punctuated by violent revolutionary seizures.’

This, ultimately, is the thing we have not yet broken away from, despite the unwarranted leftist jubilation all around.

Unger is very sceptical of the social science tendency to revisit what he calls ‘frameworks’ as though they were neutral or transparent realities, or as models to be applied to any situation. One can see this happening in everyday discourse too, as 1917 is compared to 2017, for instance.

Unger’s response – he is so tentative that he calls it a ‘proto-theory’ rather than a theory – is what he calls ‘false necessity’. Unger’s work at the most basic level simply urges us to try something new.

We are at another conjunctural point in history in which we have a real opportunity to do that, but the left and right are rushing back to old dogmas and then rushing forward screaming them at each other without any space for examination. Nothing new will emerge from this. No great break in the old cycles is possible if this continues:

‘The stubborn, mysterious cycles represent a permanent insult to societies whose official culture claims to base fundamental social arrangements upon the wills of free and relatively equal citizens and rights holders rather than upon blind drift or coercive authority.’

I have become increasingly tired and irritated by writers such as Negri and Agamben over the last few years, writers who project revolution into the most unlikely places. Agamben tried it on with monasticism in the last one of his I read.

Owen Hatherley is another, capital ‘M’ Modernism is defended because, er, 1917. The left is losing its sense of negation, history is being described as a positive force – and tellingly, a positive force made by those who explain it.

The ‘degrading rhythm of history’ will perhaps reveal itself, but only if it is possible to break through this collective narcolepsy. Unger provides food for thought along these lines. I will add to this a return to André Gorz, who is also in Cluster 2.

Of course, the rise of fascism is the real problem. Next to this, leftwing naivete is almost irrelevant. This brings me to Cluster 3. I have been doing most of my thinking along these lines by re-reading Seize the Time by Bobby Seale (Arrow) Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver (Panther) and Black Skin, White Masks by Fanon (Grove Press).

For a direct Brexit context I have gone back to Roger Hewitt’s brilliant, troubling, White Backlash (Cambridge). Contested narratives about the working classes being responsible for the Brexit vote make more sense with this book to ground the current false consciousness in earlier, similar sentiments.

I have also gone back to Paul Gilroy’s work on the 1980s riots in Britain that centred on issues of policing and race. It is important to side with his critiques of leftwing perspectives which fail to break out of their trance-like obsession with capitalism.

Gilroy’s critique of the ‘interpretative frame’ is crucial to revisit now, and it tallies in some ways with what Unger has written. The ‘interpretative frame’ reproduces pathologising criminal representations of black youth, but it also lacks any complexity, for instance, in the 1980s ‘it couldn’t imagine that victims of racism might be racist themselves.’ Going back to Cleaver and Seale gives you the historical and ethical grey zones too.

Again, we are losing our sense of negation if we lose our ability to hold contradictions such as these in our analysis. The ‘interpretative frame’ changes, as does racism, morphing into newer, more virulent strains, like a kind of cultural super-flu. The interpretative frame needs constant checking.

Revisiting Gilroy’s ‘The Myth of Black Criminality’, published in The Socialist Register in 1982, a year after the 1981 riots in Britain, is crucial to this work of reframing.

Gilroy described the ‘potent imagery of youthful black criminals stalking derelict inner-city streets where the law-abiding are afraid to walk after sunset’ and how this ‘has been fundamental to the popularisation of increasingly repressive criminal justice and welfare state policies.’

We can now add to this the rightwing spectre of ‘the radicalised’, the lurking jihadi, an explosive body belt strapped to him at all times. One way in which the last decade presents only difference and blinding glare is in the evidence of white testimonies to radicalisation as almost a form of leisure, almost as a form of cultural capital, and on the opposite side of the break of ‘radicalisation’ as an imposed badge of stigma for non-white subjects. Language, as Raymond Williams knew, is important to weigh.

One can see the left taking radicalisation at face value in places, rather than seeing it as a tiny hard core of horrible truth, with a vast affective cloud around it. Gilroy explains that:

‘At best, a lingering environmentalism makes a causal link between crime and unemployment or the deterioration of the inner-cities. At worst, discussion of crime becomes subsumed by the idea that the rule of law, and therefore the Nation itself, is somehow under attack.’

In 1982 this meant the constructed tabloid of black criminality, an ‘enemy within’ to add to the other internal enemies of trade unionism and socialism. Now, and in 2011 this means an enemy within plugged into an enemy without, as well as the threat of an enemy without, which in 1982 was the IRA, rather than Isis.

It is important to see this in terms of discourses that affect policies and policing and it is as important to note the weakness of leftwing analysis in 2017, as it was in 1982:

‘The left’s failure to appreciate how the racism of slump and crisis is different from the racism of boom and commonwealth, has meant that they have not grasped how notions of black criminality have been instrumental in washing the discourse of the nation as white as snow and preparing the way for repatriation.’ 

And now, of course, Brexit. In 1982 John Lea, Ian Taylor and Jock Young focused on the police and the far right, missing, because it was outside the sphere of their habitus, the systematic racial harassment. We must begin to think through fascism in Britain via media discourses of radicalisation, Tottenham Man Dem, 2011 and the most excluded and stigmatised, rather than through campus factionalism and left sectarianism. The left seems to have forgotten that the prime targets of fascists globally are the ethnic other, and we have seen spikes in anti-muslim sentiment and anti-semitism. Of course the fascists want rid of communism too, but most of the left merely fantasise about being communist in the first place, and then fantasise about opposing fascism.

What all of this means for the purpose of this article, is that after starting the year with the rag end of my reading for my last book, all of this new reading, starting with Unger, is beginning to add up to something I will commit to paper.

I have also started all sorts of things that I have thrown aside. I tend to gut books first these days, then go back and read them fully if I think I really should.

Because of this, I always have books around that I can pick up if I discard something. This brings me to Cluster 4, poetry. Well-known and not, old favourites and new to me: John Ashbery, Richard Barrett, Pete Brown, Allen Ginsberg, Osip Mandelstam, Drew Milne, Jeff Nuttall, Claire Potter, Adrian Slatcher, Michael Symmons Roberts and Nelly Sachs.

I have also explored Celan, Miroslav Holub, Mayakovsky and Pound much further than before, but they were explorations, rather than readings.

Cluster 5. Books on art, including the Monuments Are Not To Be Trusted catalogue from Nottingham Contemporary, various things by John Roberts, books on postcards and postcard collecting, and a really big pile of Viz.

– Steve Hanson