The Future is Going to Be Boring


This appeared in the summer 2009 issue of Flux magazine (issue 69, p. 77):

The Future is Going to Be Boring

Despite his bohemian hairdo and stripy tops, Lee Rourke is a creature of habit. Every single story in Everyday, his 2007 debut, was composed of a Saturday afternoon in the very same east London pub. And each one of these stories (or “fragments” as he prefers to call them) bears more than a passing resemblance to all the others. Time and again, the author retreads well-worn ground like a criminal constantly returning to the scene of his crime. Photocopying machines abound — underscoring this repetition compulsion — and the figure of Sisyphus looms large, from the hypnotic sway of a lady’s derrière in “Cruel Work” to the Groundhog Day pattern of “Footfalls”. If there is nothing new under the sun, all that remains is an eternity of repetition, recycling and re-enactment. That’s the gist of it.

“Our future is already boring, and we’ve not even reached it yet,” laments one of the scientists (echoing J. G. Ballard) in the piece you are about to read. Lee Rourke is rapidly becoming the poet laureate of tedium. One of his early “fragments” is called “Being Lee Rourke is Boring” — a title that exemplifies the author’s curious oscillation between self-aggrandisement and self-effacement. Should his dedication be in any doubt, Rourke is preparing a critical study in which he analyses how ennui has been “a central creative force” in literary history. He has also just completed a poetry collection that delves into the mind-numbing, soul-destroying monotony of office life: its eponymous emblem is Varroa destuctor, a bee-killing mite. “Most of my characters are either ergophobic or have major philosophical problems with the nature of work,” the author says.

Lee Rourke, a 37-year-old London-based Mancunian, is already one of the leading lights of the Offbeats and a respected reviewer. His first novel (published next year by American indie Melville House) is bound to further raise his profile. The Canal revolves around the Ballardian triumvirate of boredom, violence and technology. Set against the backdrop of Regent’s Canal — “one of the myriad arteries that flood a city like London with activity” — it is a book about dwelling “in the Heidegerrian sense,” about “the toing and froing of human interaction within a mechanised society” as well as the tale of “one man’s search for understanding and companionship”.


The Importance of Doing Nothing


This appeared in the summer 2009 issue of Flux magazine (issue 69, pp. 50-51):

The Importance of Doing Nothing

You know something is seriously awry when even the Tory leader claims we should be focusing on GWB as well as GDP. General Well-Being is a catch-all phrase, but in our long-hours culture it can only mean one thing: striking a better work-life balance. As Paul Lafargue — Karl Marx’s son-in-law — pointed out, God seems to have sussed it from the word go: “after six days of work, he rests for all eternity” (The Right to be Lazy, 1883). Although scripture is notoriously open to interpretation, prelapsarian Eden is patently presented as a work-free environment. It is only after the Fall — and, crucially, as a result of it — that men were condemned to earn their dough: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground” (Genesis 3:19). Women, for their pains, would bring forth children “in sorrow”. The word ‘travail’ — French for ‘work’ — also happens to refer to labour pains: it derives from the Latin tripalium which, fittingly enough, was an instrument of torture. As for ‘labour’ itself, it comes from labor meaning ‘trouble’. No wonder work is a four-letter word (to quote the 1968 Cilla Black number famously covered by the Smiths).

In ancient Greece, work was restricted to slaves — a set-up which provided a blueprint for the West until the Industrial Revolution. By the early nineteenth century, however, “the voice of busy common-sense” — as Keats dubbed it — had become deafening (“Ode on Indolence,” 1819). Nietzsche observed how people were beginning to feel guilty of “prolonged reflection”: “Well, formerly, it was the other way around: it was work that was afflicted with the bad conscience. A person of good family used to conceal the fact that he was working if need compelled him to work. Slaves used to work, oppressed by the feeling that they were doing something contemptible” (The Gay Science, 1882). “It is to do nothing that the elect exist,” Oscar Wilde reaffirmed defiantly in the face of a triumphant work ethic. Contemplation, he lamented, had come to be regarded as “the gravest sin of which any citizen can be guilty” rather than “the proper occupation of man”. It is this gradual erosion of the contemplative life — “the life that has for its aim not doing but being” — which writers and dreamers have always tried to resist (“The Critic as Artist,” 1891). Robert Louis Stevenson — who poured scorn on those “who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation” — argued that idleness “does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formulations of the ruling class” (“An Apology for Idlers,” 1881). In How to be Idle (2004), Tom Hodgkinson — co-founder of The Idler magazine (1993) — reminds us that “living is an art, not something that you fit in around your job”.

Pockets of collective anti-work resistance appeared at regular intervals throughout the 20th century, from the drop-out beatniks to the unemployed punks. The Sex Pistols’ brazen “I’m a Lazy Sod” contained the classic line: “I don’t work, I just speed; that’s all I need”. Bow Wow Wow’s second single — “W.O.R.K. (N.O. Nah No! No! My Daddy Don’t)” — turned the tables on Thatcherite austerity by celebrating the rise of the idle poor. Many like Morrissey went looking for a job and then found a job and heaven knows were miserable now. 1991 saw the release of Slackers as well as the publication of Generation X whose protagonists relocate to the Californian desert after opting out of the rat race. Douglas Coupland’s downshifting classic was subtitled “Tales for an Accelerated Culture,” mirroring the parallel rise of the Slow movement anticipated by Bertrand Russell (“In Praise of Idleness,” 1932) and chronicled by Carl Honoré (In Praise of Slow: Challenging the Cult of Speed, 2004).

“Our epoch has been called the century of work,” Lafargue wrote, back in the 1880s, “It is in fact the century of pain, misery and corruption.” “Labour is the one thing a man has had too much of,” D. H. Lawrence echoed in the 1920s (“A Sane Revolution”). Unsurprisingly, Dr. Frank Lipman’s current diagnosis is that we are all completely knackered (Spent? End Exhaustion & Feel Great Again, 2009). So what are we to do? One option is to follow the advice of New Rich guru Timothy Ferriss whose best-selling The 4-Hour Work Week (2007) is designed to teach you how to let money make itself by outsourcing your business. Alternatively, we could turn to Melville’s Bartleby who, when asked to do anything, answers: “I would prefer not to” (Bartleby, the Scrivener, 1853). We could also take our cue from Jerome K. Jerome — the forefather of Phone In Sick Day — and get our kicks from the illicit thrill of skiving: “There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do” (“On Being Idle,” 1889). Following Thierry Paquot (The Art of the Siesta, 1998), Hodgkinson prescribes hitting the snooze button where it hurts: “Edison promoted the idea of ‘more work, less sleep’. The idler’s creed is ‘less work, more sleep'”.

One man who devoted his life and, er, work (8 slim volumes in 65 years) to sleep was Egyptian émigré Albert Cossery. His was a militant form of idleness which he saw as the only way to fully enjoy “the Edenic simplicity of the world”. In an early short story, the inhabitants of an impoverished neighbourhood are prepared to kill off those who interrupt their sacred slumber before noon; in another, an Oblomov-style character refuses to leave his bed for a whole year. Cossery was convinced that those who rejected (or were deprived of) material wealth gained access to a heightened state of consciousness hence the constant association between destitution and nobility. In 1945, he checked in to a poky hotel — on the very same Parisian street where the iconic “Ne travaillez jamais” (“Never work”) graffito would soon appear — and remained there, doing precious little, until he passed away last year. Cossery chose to get a life instead of a job. Perhaps more of us should do the same — the world might be a better place.



We Are All Necronauts


This appeared in the summer 2009 issue of Flux magazine (issue 69, pp. 42-43):

We Are All Necronauts

For the past decade, the International Necronautical Society has been encouraging us to learn to die in new, imaginative ways

“Trying to beat death isn’t interesting — any dumb Christian thinks that’s possible.” Tom McCarthy, General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society (INS), firmly believes in the virtues of demanding the impossible: “What was interesting was launching an absurd, metaphor-laden conceit and using it as a tool and structure to make meaning happen.” The absurd conceit in question — “death is a type of space which we intend to map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit” — was contained in the organisation’s founding manifesto drafted ten years ago. The sheer barminess of such a mission statement placed it squarely “in the zone of silence and impossibility from which,” according to the INS, “all good art stems” (Declaration Concerning the Relationship Between Art and Democracy, 2003). Contrary to expectations, Necronauts do not spend their time trying to make contact with the beyond (which, as materialists, they fail to believe in anyway). Instead, they tune in to the “illicit frequencies” broadcast from that twilight interzone twixt life and death, speech and silence, a de Kooning and its erasure…

Necronautism takes us on a journey from the sublime to the subliminal. As stated in the INS’s latest publication, “thinking awakes in the wake of something unthinkable” (Joint Statement on Inauthenticity, 2007). This “something unthinkable” refers to Necronautism’s implausible premise, but also to what INS Chief Philosopher Simon Critchley calls “originary inauthenticity” — the trauma of materiality which prevents us from feeling at one with ourselves and the world. Art’s frequent attempt “to extinguish matter and elevate it into form” is doomed from the start since an artwork is necessarily an imperfect material reproduction of its author’s original concept. The repressed facticity of factitiousness resurfaces through neurotic repetitions or reenactments from which the INS conclude that “Art is not about originality, but about the repetition of the copy”. For their part, Necronauts eschew the facile temptation of sublimation: they are “modern lovers of debris, radio and jetstreams” who “celebrate the imperfection of matter” by “taking the side of things” (following Francis Ponge) and letting “matter matter”. Tom McCarthy points out that his celebrated first novel Remainder is precisely “an allegory of that attendance to the materiality of things, the haptic-ness of experience, rather than the abstracting and idealising negations of these”.

Over the past decade, INS activities have frequently been dismissed as mere schoolboy pranks, and there is indeed a decidedly ludic side to many of them. In 2002, INS propaganda was infiltrated into the source code of the BBC’s website — an event which was described in Burroughsian terms as an “experiment in viral transmission”. The following year, most of the First Committee members were expelled in a purge which referenced both Stalin and André Breton. James Flint and Hari Kunzru, for instance, were shown the door for colluding with the middlebrow British publishing industry. My favourite example — which evinces the mad circular logic of Carroll or Orton — is that of Shane Brighton who was expelled for expressing the wish to leave the society although the First Manifesto clearly states that this is impossible (“We are all necronauts, always, already”).

The INS members’ obsession with diagrams, cartography, crypts and encryption also lends their experiments a charming Boy’s Own flavour which is probably tinted by the General Secretary’s Tintin fixation. For Necronauts, travelling into death — “eyes and mouths wide open so that they may be filled from the deep wells of the Unknown” — is clearly conceived of as an awfully big adventure (to quote Peter Pan). It will be an even greater one if they ever achieve their ultimate goal of building “a craft” aboard which they intend to complete their momentous journey. I fancy it as a cross between the Nautilus, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and some demented contraption Wallace and Gromit could have devised over cheese and crackers, although the crafty word also refers to the acquisition of new analytical tools.

“Humour and the deadly serious aren’t mutually exclusive,” argues McCarthy, “indeed, one can help the other”. Like a great novel, the INS produces multiple, sometimes contradictory, meanings and its potency derives from this very ambiguity. “I’m interested in things that only make sense within the grey zone of metaphor,” he says, referring to that liminal space beyond which no representation is possible. “You want whatever you do to be as wriggly and difficult as possible”. A prime example of the INS’s slipperiness is McCarthy and Critchley’s Joint Statement on Inauthenticity which was — or was not, depending on who you believe — delivered in New York in September 2007. To add to the confusion, the INS Department of Propaganda refused to “authenticate” the transcripts, recordings and pictures of the event (or non-event) circulating on the internet, although they probably all originated from the very same shadowy department in the first place. Inauthenticity was taken to its logical metadramatic conclusion at Tate Britain in January 2009 when McCarthy and Critchley hired actors to play their parts and read the Joint Statement in their place.

With its manifestos, proclamations, statements, hearings, departments, inspectorates and Soviet-style executive council — not to mention its labyrinthine network of committees, sub-committees, moles and sleepers — the INS has adopted all the trappings of authoritarian avant-garde movements like the Futurists or Surrealists as well as the sinister aesthetic of Kafkaesque bureaucracy and multinational corporations. Many of their public meetings are staged in galleries or institutions which are redesigned (by Laura Hopkins) to resemble military operations rooms, Stalinist show trials or, appropriately enough, McCarthyite hearings. The 2003 Declaration Concerning the Relationship Between Art and Democracy (read by the General Secretary at the Serpentine Manifesto Marathon in October 2008) even contains the provocative view that “fascism and art go well together”. Yet, in spite of all this, McCarthy and his fellow Necronauts believe that “Art is the most anti-totalitarian thing there is, inasmuch as good art always sides with the partial and incomplete and broken against the spectre of totality.” The fact that the INS’s oeuvre amounts to a veritable Gesamtkunstswerk (total artwork) of Wagnerian proportions — encompassing art, drama, technology, anthropology, literature and philosophy — is just a further turn of the screw.

Ten years ago, when the First Manifesto was handed out at a London art fair, McCarthy’s writing career seemed to be going nowhere slowly. The INS was partly an opportunity to produce literature by other means: “I wanted to create a non-academic format and arena for discussing things — discussing them actively rather than in a tame, emasculated way.” If, according to W. H. Auden, “poetry makes nothing happen,” art can actually turn that nothing into a happening. One of the reasons why the INS parodies the Modernist avant-gardes is that they already provided a model for this fertile coupling between literature and art. The society’s modus operandi is thus in keeping with this desire to harness art’s “active potential.” A series of hearings leads to the publication of a theoretical report which is finally put into practice as a work of art.

Critchley explains that the Necronauts are “trying to do for death what the Situationists did for sex”. Two of the INS’s most striking installations were inspired by Cocteau’s Orphée in which a dead poet transmits coded messages over a car radio — messages reminiscent of those broadcast by the BBC to French resistants during the Second World War. “A man or woman in London reads a line of poetry into a microphone and in France a bridge blows up — or not,” McCarthy says, before adding: “Poetry — real poetry — should harbour that potentiality somehow.”