An Age of Total Recall and Rampant Dementia

Pettman, Dominic. Infinite Distraction: Paying Attention to Social Media. Cambridge: Polity, 2016, p. 120.

Human culture is intergenerational continuity (made up of what Stiegler calls “tertiary retentions” — the technical storage and transmission of collective memories). The long threads that compose our group, and the individual identities from which they are woven, start to fray and wear away. As one commentator, Andrew Gallix, put it, “We live in an age of total recall and rampant dementia.”

Endland

My review of Endland by Tim Etchells. The Irish Times, 28 December 2019, p. 15.

A little boy contemplates a picture hanging on the wall in a hotel room — where his father will soon shoot his mother and sister before turning the gun on himself. The narrator waxes poetic about this “masterpiece of luminescent highlighter pens” illustrating “one of those allegories popular in former times, Service Stations of the Cross”. Christ is depicted crucified on a random forecourt with Posh Spice weeping at his feet. Two “winged pump attendants” hover in the air holding a banner (advertising Mobil) “in typical period style”. The whole scene, complete with gay centurions, is surveyed — for purposes of confusing onomastics — by Peter, Paul and Mary, the American folk trio. With its mock-heroic conflation of high and low, surreal collision between the archaic and contemporary, not to mention the shameless schoolboy punning, this piece of kitsch iconoclasm encapsulates the very essence of Endland.

The first 18 tales in this collection (including the aforementioned one) were initially published together in 1999, while the 21 ensuing stories were composed — often as a result of commissions — in the interim. The book can be dipped into at will, both series segueing seamlessly into each other. Passing references to Arthur Scargill, the Toxteth riots or Care in the Community give way, almost imperceptibly, to Mark Zuckerberg T-shirts, vaping, re-enactments of “Cameron’s pig fucking youth”, zero-hours contracts and “Brexit-themed titty bars”.

Tim Etchells’ characters navigate a hostile environment that remains remarkably unchanged — uniformly bleak — from first to last. This is a society that is haunted by its past. The ghosts of “colonial-era ships” suddenly reappear, full of sailors “calling from their ambiguous Limbo in antique slang”. The “cuntry” is visited by disasters, like the Bhopal gas leak, that originally occurred in its former empire. The owner of an amusement park decides to turn the clock back to 1974, so that all laws passed after that date become “null and also void”. Those who are not mindless thugs lead small lives, “like that of a child bent double under some stairs”. Loneliness prompts a woman to devise contraptions mimicking the presence of absent neighbours. It is the public sculpture of Margaret Thatcher (made of “heavily vandalised steel”), in the penultimate piece, that stands as a monument to Endland, where hospitals are “slowly asset stripped of all and everything but the bed and the curtains”, and a man sees his benefits cut after saving another’s life, his rescue operation recast as “a kind of undeclared and hence illegal work”. Everything, including language, has been taken over by corporations: formulaic expressions are thus always accompanied by the copyright symbol. One character even dreams that somebody is trying “to bar-code scan his eyes”. I would not put it past them.

“Oh fuck,” complains a “bloke at the bar” midway through the book, “it’s really starting to stink of realism in here.” There is little danger of that. Alienation effects abound. The spelling of some characters’ names keeps morphing. A figure like Lazarus can show up in a Rotherham nightclub, playing “slow beats slower than the devil himself”. Endland — always followed by “(sic)” — is England viewed through the looking glass: an “error message from history”. A sink estate of a nation that refuses nevertheless to give in to disenchantment. All manner of horrors may be going on in the background — bombings, executions, Bosnian Serbs on the rampage, a Third World War, even a “brief atomic djihad” — but this never prevents the author’s imagination from running riot. Take Shane, who stops ageing after losing his birthday as a result of the decimalisation of time, or the father and son who build Schrödinger boxes for themselves, causing the entire population of Doncaster to live alongside their own ghosts. People from real life often gatecrash the stories, but in the most unlikely guises: Fred and Rosemary West, for instance, as TV show hosts. And then there are the omnipresent gods, with their “winged messenger” (Dumbo) and improbable names (Herpes, Centrifuge, Scalectrix, Vulva…). When her twins (Porridge and Spatula) fall in love with the same Earthling (Naomi Campbell), Helen organises a competition to determine which one will “have to fuck right off out of the way and keep his bloody oar out”.

The orality of these morality tales is absolutely thrilling: the conversational tone (“Anyway”), the textspeak-style abbreviations and liberal use of expletives; the poetic malapropisms (“flesh of lightning”, “of curse”) and frequent phonetic spelling conjure up up a dialect that seems to be in the process of becoming — one that is close to the “morning of language”, to quote Anne Carson. Our dystopian times are estranged through the childlike innocence of this narrative voice — with its flashes of tender whimsy that recall Richard Brautigan — as though the chronicles of Endland were being told by the BFG.

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Where You Can Be a Writer Without Writing

Mardell, Oscar. “Style Wars: The Conquest of Gall.” 3:AM Magazine, 21 December 2019:

 

[…] Here, Paris is both “transformed” into a symbol, and “taken away” from its inhabitants: a “dumb show” for “the world” but not, it seems, for Parisians. And when Sartre wonders “if we too hadn’t become symbols”, he is essentially positing that the citizen body might be “guarding carefully the object within [it]self” — that it might, like Genet’s criminal child, have become the “image” of a Paris to which it has been denied access.Did this “artificial existence” end after Liberation? Did Paris — and, moreover its public — simply cease to be a symbol once its “practical purpose” was restored? To these questions, We’ll Never Have Paris offers a defiant “no”. If one thing is made clear by this paradigm-shifting collection, it is that Paris has been routinely plundered by another occupier, one which predates the German invasion by at least a decade, and which has hung around long after Liberation. As Andrew Gallix phrases it in his stunning introduction: “our vision of literary Paris has been shaped by anglophone writers”:

By “literary Paris” I do not mean the city’s depiction in works of literature (Hugo, Balzac and Proust will always trump foreign competitors on that front) or even Saint-Germain-des-Prés’ café society, but rather the more nebulous notion of Paris as the very space of literature. A place, crucially, that you have to go to in order to become, be recognised as, and lead the life of a writer…Paris is a city where literature can actually be lived out — where you can be a writer without writing…

The idea here is that Paris signifies literariness, is so infallible a marker of writerly authenticity that if writers can brandish Parisian postcodes then they don’t need to put pen to paper at all. But what is crucial about this sign, about “the bohemian Paris people think of most readily outside of France”, is that it, as Gallix explains, “is anglophone”: a symbol whose exchange rate is best outside of France, whose power to signify rests chiefly in a foreign language — a sign which has been “confiscated”, in other words, from its rightful owners.

The Idea of Paris

Carroll, Tobias. “Is Paris Still an Art World Heavyweight?” InsideHook, 20 November 2019:

[…] A very different take on Paris and art comes from the recent anthology We’ll Never Have Paris, edited by Andrew Gallix. From his perspective, a lot of discussion of Paris emerges from Anglophone perceptions of it. “I have lived here most of my life — in several parts of the 9th and 14th arrondissements, as well as in the 6th and 18th — and currently reside in one of Paris’s poor, rat-infested northern banlieues, soon to be subsumed into a brave new Grand Paris,” he says. “I certainly cannot be accused of labouring under the delusion that it is all glamorous boutiques and bohemian cafés. I know what the reality of everyday life in Paris is and relaying it to an English-speaking readership was not what I set out to do. Quite the contrary, in fact.”

For Gallix, the anthology became a way to explore how certain writers helped to shape enduring perceptions of Paris. “It dawned on me that the romantic notion of a bohemian Paris that many people entertain all over the world owed as much to Hemingway and other English-language writers as to Hugo or Rimbaud,” he explains. “So I set out to explore this Anglo version of Paris. I wanted to see how the idea of Paris — whether rooted in their experience or not — inspired Anglophone writers today.”

Here, the contributors hail from a host of nations, including Will Self, Max Porter and Joanna Walsh. “I started off by approaching authors whose work I admired and who had, I knew, resided for a while in Paris, either recently or years ago,” Gallix says. “At the same time, I shunned the expat communities and in particular all those purveyors of ghastly expat memoirs. I also made sure that some of the contributors had never even set foot in France, let alone Paris, so that the remit would become a kind of Oulipian writing constraint in their case. Only five contributors, out of 79, currently reside in the French capital.”

Gallix also planned for a weighty volume from the very beginning. “I knew from the start that I wanted to produce a capacious volume that readers could dip into aboard the Eurostar or while sipping a coffee at a sidewalk café,” he says.

As for the reaction to We’ll Never Have Paris, it’s been mixed, he explains. “The book got very good reviews in the Times Literary Supplement and Financial Times. However, sales have proved much healthier in the US than in the UK despite the lack of reviews across the Pond,” Gallix says. “This is probably due to a strong sales team and good distribution. Perhaps the allure of Paris also remains greater over there. You tell me.”

Regardless of whether you embrace Paris wholeheartedly or view it with a historical remove, both [Will Mountain] Cox and Gallix are, in their own ways, demonstrating the continued vibrancy of the city and the work it can inspire. It’s not what you might expect, but it might be just the work you’re looking for.

Life on Marx

Ashford, James. “What is Hauntology?” The Week, 31 October 2019:

[…] And away from politics, “at its most basic level, it ties in with the popularity of faux-vintage photography, abandoned spaces and TV series like Life on Mars”, said writer and academic Andrew Gallix in The Guardian in 2011.

“When you come to think of it, all forms of representation are ghostly,” he added. “Works of art are haunted, not only by the ideal forms of which they are imperfect instantiations, but also by what escapes representation.”

A Ghost-Hunting Manual for the End of History

Mardell, Oscar. Review of Love Bites: Fiction Inspired by Pete Shelley and Buzzcocks, edited by Andrew Gallix, Tomoé Hill and C.D. Rose. 3:AM Magazine, 27 October 2019:

[…] And it’s not only time that is out of joint. Andrew Gallix’s ‘Operators Manual’ begins with the haunting passage:

I live on a trap street. One of those fictitious roads cartographers add to their maps in order to confound plagiarists. Have I confounded you now that you have found me? Found me here, of all places — a non-existent one.

Gallix’s piece is, among other things, a masterstudy in place as palimpsest, a setting defined by what is elsewhere. […]

Here are some more highlights from the review:

Like the band that inspired them, the pieces collected here share an obsessive focus on the ordinary, lovingly cataloguing its mundane, glamourless, and frustrating weirdness. They document the awkwardness and the hilarity of human relationships, and of love in particular — the way it violates and completes our everyday lives, and the way it transcends the gender divisions by which those lives are often structured. The singularity of the source, in other words, has begotten wonderful issue. Love Bites is about as far away from the linear or sentimental retrospective as you can get. This is no starry-eyed tourist guide to some bygone era; think of it as a ghost-hunting manual for The End of History. It will be a hard — perhaps impossible — act to follow. And whatever comes next is destined to look like a parody of an old routine.

Expertly Seeking Susan

Review of Sontag: Her Life by Benjamin Moser. The Irish Times, 5 October 2019, p. 22.

In 1965, Susan Sontag — fresh from publishing her landmark essay, “Notes on ‘Camp’” — was whisked away in a limousine to a hip nightclub notorious for its strict door policy. A member of her party whispered something in the bouncer’s ear, whereupon they were ushered in ahead of the lengthy queue. “I said, ‘We’re with Susan Sontag,’” her friend later confided, when she asked how he had worked his magic.

The young woman, still only in her early 30s, was astonished to discover that her name had become an “open sesame” to high society. Despite being filmed by Andy Warhol and dining out with Jacqueline Kennedy, the budding intellectual superstar felt like a figment of her own imagination. This discrepancy between the “real me” and the “self-for-others” lies at the heart of Benjamin Moser’s fittingly monumental authorised biography. Running to more than 700 pages (excluding notes and index) and drawing on a wealth of hitherto inaccessible material, as well as scores of interviews, Sontag: Her Life has a strong claim to definitive status.

Sontag herself may well be the ideal candidate for a literary biography. She once observed that an author’s journal allows us to “read the writer in the first person” and “encounter the ego behind the masks of ego”, but what her own diaries reveal is essentially a lack of ego, or at best one so amorphous as to be a blank slate.

To say that Sontag was a divided self is not the half of it. “I have always liked to pretend my body isn’t there,” she confessed, despite coming across, in the 1960s, as the love child of Alcibiades and Socrates, or Monroe and Einstein. This accounts, inter alia, for her lifelong hygiene issues (she had to remind herself — in longhand — to take baths and clean her teeth), her punishing, speed-fuelled nocturnal writing routine (WH Auden was one of her dealers) and her failure to even mention she had cancer in Illness as Metaphor.

Moser chronicles Sontag’s regular attempts to resolve what she called the “agonised dichotomy between the body and the mind”, which she identified early on as the source of her “greatest unhappiness”. These could take a predictably theoretical shape, as in her work on Antonin Artaud, who had sought, she wrote, “to heal the split between language and flesh”, or her concomitant interest in Gnosticism, which held out the promise of reconciling “all dualisms”. At other times she would make a concerted effort to “emerge from her head into her body”, perhaps most successfully during her passionate affair with playwright María Irene Fornés, who introduced her to sexual pleasure. She described (in comically abstract terms) “[t]he coming of the orgasm” as “the birth of [her] ego”, going as far as to claim that she “didn’t exist in the sense that others and everything else did” prior to this most seminal of events.

Her busy, tempestuous, sentimental life failed, however, to provide any semblance of plenitude. Sontag always conceived of relationships as a struggle between master and slave (usually playing the former role with men and the latter with women, although her bullying of long-term partner Annie Leibovitz takes some beating). This power dynamic was even internalised, with “Miss Librarian” — as she called her geeky, gawky self — constantly berated and spurred on to better things by “that person who has been watching me as long as I can remember”.

At the tender age of 11, Sontag made the (as she put it) “conscious decision” to become popular, thus embarking on a lifelong “project of self-transformation” underpinned by a pressing need “to see more, to hear more, to feel more”. As a schoolgirl, she could be found studying Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, concealed behind a copy of the Reader’s Digest she was really meant to be focusing on. By the age of 16 she was studying at Chicago — then the US’s most intellectually rigorous university — having already spent a year at Berkley. And that was only the beginning.

As Moser points out, she often tried to find herself in works of art in which she could lose herself. Her quest for a heightened sense of reality doubtless culminated when she directed Waiting for Godot in a besieged Sarajevo: “This is not ‘symbolic’,” she declared, as though she had just brought down the Matrix, “This is real”.

Writing, for her, was not so much a means of self-expression — having little self to express in the first place — but one of self-creation. Convinced that all good writers are “roaring egotists”, she coveted the persona of the great author which would counteract her inclination “to hide, to be invisible”, itself compounded by her homosexuality: “I need the identity as a weapon,” she stated in 1959, “to match the weapon that society has against me”.

The imperious diva of later years — with her trademark Cruella de Vil hairdo — may have lorded it over Manhattan’s intelligentsia, but still felt, whenever she was alone, like the little girl she had tried so hard to outgrow. The part of herself she had spent a lifetime attempting to leave behind was, paradoxically enough, the only one that felt truly authentic, no doubt because it was born of deep trauma (a dead father and an alcoholic mother). Moser shows how fame inevitably widened this gap “between the simulacrum, the metaphor, the mask, the persona and the self found in silence”.

Sontag’s adoption of the larger-than-life persona of the Great American Novelist was also at odds with the negative capability that informs some her best works, which may well have reinforced her feeling of inauthenticity.

Sontag’s greatest creation was, ultimately, Susan Sontag herself, and the two were “neither completely distinct nor completely identical”, just like an image and the object it represents. As her biographer puts it, twice — but it is worth repeating — she “created the mould, then broke it”.