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. …

Dream Machines (Teaser)

My review of Steven Connor‘s Dream Machines appears in this week’s Times Literary Supplement.

Here’s a little teaser:

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 counterintuitive 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…

The Story of “The Face”

My review of The Story of “The Face”: The Magazine That Changed Culture by Paul Gorman. The Times Literary Supplement, 24 & 31 August 2018, p. 43.

Paul Gorman’s The Story of “The Face” charts the rise and fall of the original style magazine, from its launch, on a shoestring, in 1980, to 1999, when it was sold off by its founder to a publishing giant. Nick Logan’s monthly would only survive five more years in the brave new digital world it had foreshadowed with its kaleidoscopic cultural coverage. Right from the start, The Face proved a victim of its own success. Having identified style as the prism through which to observe the zeitgeist — thereby eliding the distinction between men and women’s magazines — it soon spawned a host of imitators, not least among the Sunday supplements. At one stage, art director Neville Brody was producing a brand new typeface for every issue, in a frenetic bid to remain one step beyond.

This coffee-table book, with its hundreds of lavishly reproduced covers and innovative page layouts, does full justice to the “world’s best-dressed magazine”. Flicking through it, one witnesses The Face’s visual identity gradually shifting away from radical graphic design towards slick era-defining photography. The Story of The Face is a paean to its founder who, the author contends, has been airbrushed out of history. Logan’s fascination with the intersection between pop music and street style was rooted in his days as a young mod in the 1960s, which the title of his prime publication would allude to (a face being a top mod). After working for the local press, he graduated to the New Musical Express where he became editor at the age of twenty-six, in 1973, presiding over what was arguably the paper’s most important period. He left, following a breakdown, subsequently launching the hugely successful Smash Hits aimed at the post-punk teenybopper market.

The Face was ahead of its time, but also very much of it. The inaugural issue was even delayed by a printers’ strike. Although he knew that the Two Tone phenomenon had already peaked, Logan insisted on putting a picture of The Specials’ Jerry Dammers on the cover as the band typified the marriage of street style and popular music he intended to explore. In a landmark piece published a couple of years later, Robert Elms observed that youth culture now represented “not a rebellion but a tradition” — one, he may have sensed, that was drawing to a close. The days of the austerity dandies who, devoid of job or future, fashioned themselves into extravagant works of art, were numbered. Never again would style have so much substance. The Face chronicled the end of an era as much as it ushered in a new one, endowing its early strapline — “rock’s final frontier” — with a presciently valedictory tone.

 

The Story of “The Face” (excerpt)

My short review of Paul Gorman‘s excellent The Story of “The Face”: The Magazine That Changed Culture features in the latest issue of The Times Literary Supplement, 24 & 31 August 2018, p. 43.

Here’s an extract:

. . . The Face was ahead of its time, but also very much of it. The inaugural issue was even delayed by a printers’ strike. Although he knew that the Two Tone phenomenon had already peaked, Logan insisted on putting a picture of The Specials’ Jerry Dammers on the cover as the band typified the marriage of street style and popular music he intended to explore. In a landmark piece published a couple of years later, Robert Elms observed that youth culture now represented “not a rebellion but a tradition” — one, he may have sensed, that was drawing to a close. The days of the austerity dandies who, devoid of job or future, fashioned themselves into extravagant works of art, were numbered. Never again would style have so much substance. The Face chronicled the end of an era as much as it ushered in a new one, endowing its early strapline — “rock’s final frontier” — with a presciently valedictory tone.

The Cost of Living

This review of Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living appeared in the Irish Times on 7 April 2018, p. 34:

The Price a Woman Has to Pay For Unmaking a Home

The Cost of Living is the second instalment, and future centrepiece, in Deborah Levy’s autobiographical trilogy. Its pivotal nature becomes apparent when the narrator is loaned a shed of her own, where three books — “including the one you are reading now” — will be conceived. Such foregrounding of the work’s primal scene is no metafictional gimmick, however. It is consonant with Levy’s commitment to looking life in the eye, rather than reflected in the shield of allegory.

“It was there,” she explains, “I would begin to write in the first person, using an I that is close to myself and yet is not myself”. Gazing back at her textual avatar – becoming the reader, as well as the author, of herself – Levy opens up this gap through which she journeys towards the “vague destination” of a “freer life”.

There is a deeply moving, albeit somewhat disquieting, passage, where the nine-year-old Deborah, fresh off the boat from her native South Africa, comes knocking on the door of her middle-aged self in London, and ends up watching Bake Off with the two daughters she will later give birth to. This is a variation on the “flashback in the present” technique that the author frequently deploys to great effect in her fiction, but spectacularly fails to get across to a boardroom full of film executives, in one of the book’s many comic scenes.

Describing this ongoing project as a “living biography” is particularly apposite, not only because the author is alive, kicking and evidently at the height of her creative powers, but also because she eschews nostalgia, firmly convinced that the past is never written in stone. Towards the end of the book, she speaks to her mother for the first time since her passing: “She is listening. I am listening. That makes a change”. She goes on to recount a heart-rending anecdote about a pair of earrings she almost buys her as a gift in a department store, before the unspeakable enormity of death suddenly sinks in at the till.

If Things I Don’t Want to Know (2013) was a response to Orwell’s Why I Write, the emphasis here is on how to write in the wake of two traumatic events which occurred within a year of each other: the break-up of the author’s marriage and her mother’s demise. In the Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home (2011), one of the characters claims to only enjoy biographies once the subjects have escaped “from their family and spend the rest of their life getting over them”. Finding herself in a similar situation, the author now seems to be putting into practice all the themes she has been rehearsing in her works since the 1980s, as though the fiction were a prelude to her vita nova.

As Levy downsizes, her life grows bigger and she feels emboldened and energised by the adventure she has embarked upon despite all the hardship. She has no regrets about swapping her book-lined study for a “starry winter night sky”, now that she writes on a tiny balcony, where she falls asleep fully dressed “like a cowgirl”, in her north London “apartment on the hill”. Other people – including the family from down the road that she borrows for Sunday lunches, the Turkish newsagents and the Welsh octogenarian firebrand who kindly lends her the shed – are a constant source of fascination, but so too are the bees, moths, squirrels and birds she shares the world with: “everything,” she observes, “is connected in the ecology of language and living”. She delights in the practicalities of daily life, even proving a dab hand with a Master Plunger, and when she zips along the road on her electric bicycle, her party dress “flying in the wind”, she finds it difficult not to whoop.

The Cost of Living refers to the price a woman has to pay for unmaking the home she no longer feels at home in. In Levy’s case, this radical act of erasure inaugurates a quest for a new life that is inseparable from the writing of a new narrative. No longer willing to take part in the masquerade of femininity – that “societal hallucination” – she fumbles for a different kind of role to play. At this juncture, all she knows is that it will be a “major [as yet] unwritten female character”. The process of transitioning “from one life to another” also prompts her to reinterpret some of her fondest memories and past attitudes: “Did I mock the dreamer in my mother and then insult her for having no dreams?”

Deborah Levy describes women’s often thankless homemaking enterprise as “an act of immense generosity”. It is also a perfect description of this truly joyous book.