Cosmic Knitting

My review of Dream Machines by Steven Connor. The Times Literary Supplement, 12 October 2018, p. 29.

Dream Machines is an exercise in technography — an exercise, that is, in what Steven Connor defines as any kind of writing about technology that draws attention to the workings of its own machinery. Writing itself may be thought of as a kind of technology — a “mechanisation of speech”, as Connor puts it — and technology in turn may be thought of, perhaps less obviously, as writing. Demonstrating the latter, more counter-intuitive proposition is the main purpose of this ground-breaking book.

For Connor, a professor of English at the University of Cambridge, all machines could stand as “preliminary sketches” towards an absolute machine: one that would align perfectly with the process of thinking itself. Examples abound, in both fact or fiction, of schemes for machines whose nuts and bolts evanesce into sheer fancy. Marie Corelli conjures up contraptions in her Romance of Two Worlds (1886) that are really avatars of “the most powerful machinery of all, that of fantasy or the thing that makes fantasy actual and able to work on the world, writing”. In 1919 the psychoanalyst Viktor Tausk published an article on the elaborate imaginary apparatus his schizophrenic patients claimed to be persecuted by: this “Influencing Machine” is, likewise, but “an allegory of the machine of writing that sums and summons it up”. If the “orgone box” — an “accumulator” of “orgone energy” dreamt up by Wilhelm Reich in the 1930s and realized some years later by a student of his — produced any pleasure at all, it was through the wish fulfilment of seeing reality “entirely subjugated to imagination”.

It is this visionary component in all technology — the ghost in every machine  — that Connor attempts to isolate by focusing on deficient or, better still, impossible devices. The perfect machine, he suggests, may well be one that, in always going wrong at some stage, is “endlessly perfectible”: planned obsolescence as ontological necessity. This is a notion best exemplified by the “Ultimate Machine” invented by Claude Shannon, following the examples of Bruno Munari and Marvin Minsky. A small box with a single switch, its sole purpose is to “fail to be what it is”: it is a machine with no purpose other than to turn itself off (which it does via a “hand” that emerges, flips the switch and then “immediately retreats into the box”). Perpetual motion mechanisms, to which Connor  devotes a fascinating final chapter, do something similar not not only out of design but necessity (i.e., the laws of thermodynamics). And then there are Michel Carrouges’s drawings of machines célibataires — wondrous yet useless affairs, “whose function is not to work, but to elaborate non-function” — as well as Novalis’s disquieting vision of a “mill grinding itself” or Joseph Conrad’s nightmarish cosmic knitting machine (in a letter from 1897: “It knits us in and it knits us out”), two haunting images that recur throughout the book.

Machines that can only exist in potentia, and preferably on paper, are Connor’s beau idéal. “‘Imaginary’ work makes us work at imagining the work of imagining”, as he puts it in one of his typically recursive aphorisms. He observes how dreams have a propensity to conjure up machines that, in turn, reflect “the machinery of the act of dreaming itself”. This mise en abyme is critical: machines “mediate us to ourselves”, and hence the author’s definition of technology as “the self’s manner of writing, or making itself known to itself”. Connor speculates that Henry James found the sound of his secretary’s typewriter so soothing because it evoked the smooth operation of his imagination, which would have been disrupted had he focused on it directly.

Steven Connor also observes how medical machines are endowed with symbolic value, functioning as “visible allegories” for the body, its workings envisaged as mechanisms of some kind. This mediatory role of all technology is threatened, however, by the advances of miniaturization and dematerialization, processes which render their machine components increasingly invisible. All machines are dream machines, it turns out, not only because they are of necessity bound up with human affect and fancy (humankind is “Homo mechanicus”), but also because their condition, today, is “essentially to-be-imagined”.

The brilliant dialectical turn of mind on show throughout this book runs the risk of becoming a stylistic tic, as though the kinetic were developing its own momentum, hijacking the author’s rhetoric. The “force of fantasy” morphs, with machine-like predictability, into the “fantasy of force”; the “work of dreaming” into the “dream of working”; the “narrated machinery” into the “machinery of narration”; the “negation of the machine” into the “machinery of negation”; and so on. At times Dream Machines almost seems to be writing itself. And this is, after all, quite fitting.


A Bird’s Eye View On Destroying the World to Save It

My review of The End of the End of the Earth by C.D. Rose. The Irish Times, 8 December 2018, p. 28.

A Bird’s Eye View On Destroting the World to Save It

Jonathan Franzen’s description of himself as “someone who cares more about birds than the next man” sounds innocent enough. Endearing, even. It is rather more controversial, however, when construed as a rabbit-duck illusion. Is the “Great American Novelist” — to quote a famous Time cover headline — simply a passionate, albeit obsessive, ornithologist? Or does he actually prefer birds to fellow human beings? This question lies at the heart of The End of the End of the Earth, his third non-fiction collection, in which he sets out to use the essay as a vehicle for “honest self-examination and sustained engagement with ideas”.

If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, the “test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function”, then Franzen has passed with flying colours. Alongside longer birdwatching travelogues, there are pieces on photography, technology, short-termism, Manhattan in the early Eighties, and of course literature (his “Ten Rules for the Novelist” have already earned him a great deal of online ribbing).

Franzen is “miserably conflicted” about climate change. On the one hand, he is convinced that it is the greatest challenge facing humanity, but on the other, he feels “bullied by its dominance” in environmental circles, where it has become a dogma that precludes any nuanced discussion.

In particular, he takes the National Audubon Society to task for jumping on the bandwagon, by claiming that global warming today is the “number-one threat” to birds in North America. In fact, he explains, not a single bird death can be “definitively” ascribed to this phenomenon right now unlike, say, wind farms. This leads him to wonder if we are not “destroying the natural world in order to save it”. It also prompts a great deal of soul-searching, as he grapples with feelings of guilt over “caring more about birds in the present” than people in the future. This notion that he is somehow deficient in “brotherly love” recurs throughout the book, although it is amply disproved by the warmth and tenderness with which he evokes his friend, the writer Bill Vollmann, or his gregarious late uncle Walt.

The simplistic message of global warming can be conveniently conveyed “in fewer than a hundred and forty characters” as opposed to the more complex — “novelistic” — narrative of wildlife conservation favoured by the author. Climate change has the added advantage of being a problem “with a human face”, one that is everybody’s fault and therefore nobody’s, hence its appeal to our narcissism both as a species and as individuals. More crucially still, it provides us with a ready-made belief system, New England Puritanism 2.0: “Unless we repent and mend our ways, we’ll all be sinners in the hands of an angry Earth”. At the latest reckoning, we have ten years left before Judgement Day, but in a decade — when we fail to meet our latest carbon-emission targets — the goalposts will be moved again. The end is never nigh enough.

Eschewing eschatology, Franzen outlines an alternative approach to environmentalism based on “loving what’s concrete and vulnerable and right in front of us”. He calls it “Franciscan” — after Saint Fancis of Assisi, that other bird lover — but Emersonian would do just as well. Instead of focusing on a hypothetical future, he seeks to reconnect, here and now, with a past in which nature was still untainted by human intervention. Being the “most vivid and widespread representatives of the Earth as it was before people arrived on it”, birds allow us to take flight momentarily from the Anthropocene. That house finch outside our window is, he reminds us, “a tiny and beautifully adapted living dinosaur”. Birds’ flight paths “bind the planet together”, offering a tantalising glimpse of a totalising worldview. “If you could see every bird in the world, you’d see the whole world,” writes Franzen, fully aware that bird-watching (or “birding” in American parlance) is predicated on its own failure (which does not prevent him from being a compulsive “lister”).

The author’s avian passion remains unrequited, and this is as it should be. Birds’ indifference to us serves as “a chastening reminder that we’re not the measure of all things”. Though they defecate on us from a great height, birds could not give a shit about human beings, and this is also how it should be. After all, it is “we, not they, who need life to have a meaning”.

Sixty-Seven Variations on Dadsplaining

My review of Owen Booth‘s wonderful debut novel, What We’re Teaching Our Sons, appears in the December issue of Literary Review.

To misquote Simone de Beauvoir, one is not born but rather becomes a man. This is the premise of What We’re Teaching Our Sons, a satire, alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, of all those earnest treatises on fatherhood.

Although very accessible, Owen Booth’s debut is as difficult to pin down as the notion of masculinity in an age of female empowerment and gender fluidity. It is a novel with an emotional arc, but one you may also dip into, each chapter being a story unto itself. In fact, it is essentially the same story — sixty-seven variations on dadsplaining — springing from the same template. …