Photos taken in early August, before I dropped my camera in the sand and broken it. No more photos for a while until I can afford to get it fixed. Lots of these were taken, inevitably, with a Burial earworm.

Coming Through:
Notes on Solitude and Substance, Fashion and Poetry

… Thousands of memories of feeling solitude, and wishing in a rage for the end of hard times or of thought.

Maybe he will only leave a formless pile of glimpsed fragments, sufferings broken against the world, whole years lived in the space of a minute, incomplete and cold constructions, tremendous labours summed up in a single glance, and dead.

But all these ruins have a certain tint of rose.

— Paul Valéry

The Humber estuary sits like a wound in England’s side. I’ve probed that wound, as if full of doubt, but have rarely crossed it — this gouge in the side of the nation lined with beacons marking the edges of industry and knowledge.

When I was a child, even an adolescent, the south as seen from the river’s northern banks was another country, a shadow land, a sparse mirror image of a possible past or future (I could never tell which).

The banks of the estuary unfurl east and west in stops and starts. Morse-coded muds and sands; the water unfathomable churning brown. The current is strong and treacherous, but at low tide it is still possible (albeit very difficult) to walk across the dark expanse — a feat seen locally like the climbing of Everest, although far fewer people have made the journey. (I have crossed the Humber Bridge by car only a handful of times, and generally not with locals.)

My earliest childhood memory is of the blinking red light that sits atop the bridge’s northernmost strut, as seen far in the distance from a crib in my parents’ bedroom. The older I get, the less sure I am if this memory is real or dream. (All memories become dreams eventually, if you remember them often enough.)

Hull: the city that sits some twenty-five miles inland from the estuary’s misshapen mouth. People all over the country now know Hull for its culture but they couldn’t tell you what that culture is. I think of Hull’s culture as a sound, elongated and time-stretched like its vowels. For better or worse, it lags behind, or simply looks outward, unperturbed by the nation at its back, eluding the present.

“Here is unfenced existence: / Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.” So wrote Philip Larkin of his adopted home. My favourite Larkin anecdote is that he wore a D.H. Lawrence t-shirt to do the gardening. (So do I.) I love that image of this slight and bookish man; his comic ode to Mellors, the groundskeeper in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, no doubt. Mellors, for whom living “is moving, and moving on”; Mellors, who is both fenced and unfenced. “I’m not just my lady’s fucker, after all.”

Lady Chatterley asks, “What else are you?”

“You may well ask. It no doubt is invisible. I’m something — to myself at least. I can see the point of my own existence — though I can quite understand nobody else’s seeing it.”

There was a nice essay in the Guardian the other week by Lara Feigel about reading, or more specifically, the rise of the “bibliomemoir”. I wasn’t aware this genre had a name but I am now newly aware that it is all I have been reading of late. This blog has even begun to feel like an ingrown bibliomemoir, and perhaps always has been: a place in which I repeatedly write about books I have read by writers who write through their own reading.

“Books throw us into the world as much as they provide respite from it”, Fiegel writes. In listing a number of examples from literature, she begins with Jane Eyre — perhaps the most affecting example there is. In the opening scene, we meet Jane in the “small breakfast-room adjoined to the drawing room [which] contained a bookcase”. She hides there, reading Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds, in which she reads about

the haunts of sea-fowl; of ‘the solitary rocks and promontories’ by them only inhabited; of the coast of Norway, studded with isles from its southern extremity, the Lindeness, or Naze, to the North Cape… the bleak shores of Lapland, Siberia, Spitzbergen, Nova Zembla, Iceland, Greenland, with ‘the vast sweep of the Arctic Zone, and those forlorn regions of dreary space — that reservoir of frost and snow, where firm fields of ice, the accumulation of centuries of winters, glazed in Alpine heights above heights, surround the pole, and concentre the multiplied rigours of extreme cold.’ Of these death-white realms I formed an idea of my own: shadowy, like all the half-comprehended notions that float dim through children’s brains, but strangely impressive. The words in these introductory pages connected themselves with the succeeding vignettes, and gave significance to the rock standing up alone in the sea of billow and spray; to the broken boat stranded on a desolate coast; to the cold and ghastly moon glancing through bars of cloud at a wreak just sinking.

There is a tension innate to Jane’s reading habits. She is seldom allowed to read for long. Having opined about the book in her lap, she is unceremoniously interrupted by her cruel cousin, John Reed. In Bewick’s descriptions of lonely birds she sees herself, her melancholy life, her estrangement, with her solitude nonetheless punctured by the extended family members who treat their guardianship of young Jane as a burden. She is both alone and never lonely enough. It is only in reading that she has time to herself — time that she spends wistfully with the words of others.

One Friday evening recently, I went with three friends to the beach at Tynemouth. We took some beer and wine, someone had a little weed, and I brought materials for burning. We set up a fire, spread out from innumerable groups of people with the same idea, adding our own light to the procession of beacons along the shore. Our lights were mirrored out at sea, as cargo ships lingered at high tide. Over the horizon, a new moon rose, forcing the shoreline to retreat, afraid, as it loomed higher and higher above. Soon enough, the cargo ships also disappeared over the horizon, newly invisible, with only their lights gathered in halos, unattached from any object, their auras captured by an evening mist.

I walked down to the sea with a friend, paddling our feet along the receding shore. Set back from the priory on the cliffs above, the lighthouse over in the next cove span lethargically, sweeping its gaze through the moistened air, a mix of night cold and beach-fire smoke, both of which huddled together in relief following the blistering heat of the day.

I thought of Jane Eyre in that moment, as we haunted the coast like nocturnal sea-fowl, spectres on the shore, the light from the lighthouse offering a waypoint on land. Its light could not reach us. Even the light of the moon, burning through the gloom, hardly seemed to touch us in our solitude.

On the drive home from the beach, my friends wish they had more time to read. “Imagine being able to read for a living”, they say. “Welcome to my world”, I interject, having just finished a proofreading job that afternoon. “What have you been up to?” they ask earlier. “How was your week?” Uneventful, I say. I have barely left the house.

I’m starting to work again — “work” in some renewed sense at least. Although I am still on long-term sick from my day job, I’ve started to do some proofreading for Repeater Books again. I’m also writing a talk on Mark Fisher for early September, on capitalism and mental illness, which feels like something of a capstone to this present period of unwellness. I also need to finish my next book, the edited manuscript of which will be returned to me in early September also. Not long after that, in October, I’ll start my PhD. By all accounts, I’m busy, whilst still cocooned in this peculiar headspace where thoughts run free but the body lags behind. These few attempts to regain some sense of normality, a schedule that was normal and comfortable a year ago, only leaves me exhausted and frequently braindead.

I am unsure what effect my life of reading is having on me.

Feigel gives a brief overview of recent “bibliomemoirs” that seem to take the scene from Jane Eyre as primal, from Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch and Nilanjana Roy’s The Girl Who Ate Books to Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. Each one addresses a fundamental displacement and reads like an orphaned literature, with the authors finding families in others’ protagonists.

In turning to her own most recent book, Look! We Have Come Through! – Living with DH Lawrence, what lingers behind Feigel’s essay is the tension between “men’s” and “women’s” writing that I have recently been preoccupied with myself — and indeed, the broader tension of an impossible loneliness, which we find in Jane Eyre. It is not simply important that we may find ourselves in books but that they might alienate us also. The construction of the self, in any respect, is a double-edged sword: we come to understand ourselves as much through what we are as what we are not.

Intriguingly, in her review of Feigel’s book, also published in the Guardian, Rachel Cooke has little time for the antagonism. She is a strange choice of reviewer, in fact — a woman self-assured in her distaste for Lawrence, reviewing a book that contends with an infatuation with him. “To read Lawrence is, as even some of his admirers admit, to be in the company of a bully, a preacher and a narcissist”, she writes. “Fascinating, he might be (in small doses). Good company he most definitely is not.” She then reduces Feigel’s study to the category of self-help, since it is not a clean work of criticism or memoir, defiantly misunderstanding the lineage that Feigel sees herself within, and that of Lawrence also.

Many of Lawrence’s views, dragged into the present, are certainly unsavoury. (Cooke focuses in particular on his disdain for democracy, for example — although this is tellingly disconnected from Lawrence’s infatuation with Nietzsche, who felt similar, studying the problems of democracy that preoccupied the ancient Greeks, in a manner that can hardly be contained in a neat political identity; disconnected from Lawrence’s contradictory but productive alignment with both an increasingly alienated working-class and a cultural aristocracy.) But what remains fascinating in Lawrence, for me at least, is his modernism. Though it may at times flirt with views we now recognise as fascist — as seemed to be an occupational hazard for many a male modernist — the “self-help” tendencies in his books (far from explicit threads that we are nonetheless capable of untangling, as Deleuze and Guattari sought to do) come precisely from his fascination with the symbol of the phoenix, with rebirth, with making things new.

In her essay, which reads like a cunningly indirect response to this far from generous review, Feigel notes how her interest in Lawrence was reignited by her students. Though her passion for Lawrence began to wane as she spent more time with feminist writing — something I can also relate to — she finds her “students’ reluctant passion for his female characters inspiring.” It is a reluctant passion that has remained steadfast for many readers over the decades, because what is most invigorating and confounding about Lawrence is that, despite his personal chauvinism, his attraction to a certain kind of masculinity is coupled with an ardent preoccupation with women more generally. As Feigel concludes, for her:

reading Lawrence has demonstrated a way beyond today’s polarised politics, because he was so prepared to allow contradictory thoughts to coexist, to push every thought to its extremity in order to try it out and then think its opposite.

Though Lawrence may appear to us as a man of discontent, this discontent is far more nuanced than that of our contemporary manosphere, precisely because he does not simply other women but explore how men and women are others to each other. In this sense, his androgynous writing, in which male and female characters are written with a comparable psychological depth, is still ripe for exploration, particularly given how his singular perspective on the world was not so concerned with the polarisation of a culture war — of which Lawrence was arguably once a true victim, with so many of his books being banned under a pervasive English conservatism — but with the blurring of lines between modes of expression.

In her recent biography of Lawrence, Burning Man, Frances Wilson may offer the most succinct exposition of Lawrence’s peculiarities in this regard:

His fidelity as a writer was not to the truth but to his own contradictions, and reading him today is like tuning into a radio station whose frequency keeps changing. He was a modernist with an aching nostalgia for the past, a sexually repressed Priest of Love, a passionately religious non-believer, a critic of genius who invested in his own worst writing. Of all the Lawrentian paradoxes, however, the most arresting is that he was an intellectual who devalued the intellect, placing his faith in the wisdom of the very body that throughout his life was failing him. Dismantle his contradictions, however, and you take away the structure of his being: D.H. Lawrence, the enemy of Freud, impressively defies psychoanalysis.

It is here too that Feigel finds much to explore and admire. She notes, in particular, how much fury there is in Lawrence, and how this fury emerges from all sides. She continues:

There’s much to be angry about in Lawrence (his forays into gender essentialism and racial hierarchy, his denial of his wife Frieda’s identity as a mother). But I’ve also learned from him to find antagonism productive and I have realised how hard I have found it as a woman to accept anger – my own and other people’s.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the unprecedented portrayal of women in Lawrence’s novels, which inspired so many modernist women to a kind of unapologetic expression of their own psychologies, in a manner similarly resistant to a reductive psychoanalysis. In reading Lawrence, even despite himself, many women have and continue to feel themselves seen, their passions recognised, their selves constructed and deconstructed.

So many post-Lawrentian modernist women, in this regard, embraced their own contradictions also — in particular, the productive antagonism between the adoption of a more masculine writing as a way to further give voice to a modern femininity that likewise defies the psychoanalytic reductivism of female sexuality by the likes of Freud. Though they move counter to Lawrence’s own habits of expression, it is nonetheless true that, in his often patriarchal and masculine depictions of life, Lawrence could not help but illuminate the other side. Feminism may appear negatively in his works, but it appears all the same, bright and luminescent. He set the task for many women to make of his often negative condition (and their own) something positive.

Anaïs Nin, the first woman to published a study of Lawrence’s work in 1932, was perhaps also the first woman to take up this task. As Edmund Wilson later wrote of her work in a 1945 edition of the New Yorker, she is “one of those women writers who have lately been trying to put into words a new genuine point of view, who deal with the conflicts created for women by living half in a man-controlled world against which they cannot help rebelling, half in a world which they have made for themselves but which they cannot find completely satisfactory.”

But Nin, like Lawrence, does not enter into a discussion of “men’s” and “women’s” writing to set one across from its other. “There was no declaration of war between the sexes in my work”, she says.

There was a desire to show that relation is only possible if one understands the emotional crystallizations of both men and women… In a true relationship there is no taking sides, no feminine claims in opposition to masculine claims, no reproaches at all. There is an effort to confront together what interferes with genuine fusions.

This is not to disavow a feminist orientation but to explore that line of thought that some (but not all) now take for granted: that patriarchy is as much as restriction of men’s becoming as it is of women’s.

It is in this sense of confrontation that Nin first finds Lawrence, who expresses

our need for the symbol by which to express truths which are unbearable or inacceptable. But the symbol has another function. It also expresses, as the poets do, an experience which is not physical, not acted out, not literal. It expresses a feeling, a more complex psychological reality.

But against this interest in psychology, Lawrence is even more fascinating for his criticisms of Freudian psychoanalysis. He does not take the new attempts to understand our psychological realities as an objective and received knowledge, but rather insists on something more subjective and fluid. Though Freud may have first theorised our intuitions and instincts, rendering them clinical and mechanical, Lawrence “had faith” in their liquidity. “He was very fond of the word ‘flow’, in fact, insistent upon it.” To flow was to engage in a line of flight away from neurosis, which sought to capture human divergence in an emergent medicalised nomenclature.

For Nin, to be captured by neurosis is nothing less than “a kind of paralysis.” The art of writing, then, she insists further, must itself be a kind of flow, through which “living emotion is captured without dying in the process”.

It is in an awareness of and faith in feminine flows that Lawrence makes newly possible, and which can emerge from any and all bodies, even if his preoccupation with the body leads him back to a certain essentialism. Nin proceeds otherwise, against Lawrence’s inevitably patriarchal conception of flow.

Reflecting on her own commitment to writing, she describes how, for Lawrence, “men designed the patterns followed by women. So, in a natural way, I situated my vision within various women, to see men in relation to them and seeing the reflection of these relationships in feminine terms.” It is within women that she places her “camera”. Her critics despaired, but she found herself validated regardless, as “the emotional reactions of neurotic man crystalliz[ed] into complexes”, allowing her and others “to understand woman crystallizing through her reaction to certain social, historical, and personal constrictions.” In her earlier study of Lawrence, Nin writes how it was he who first “projected his physical response into the thing he observed” in a new era. Emotion is the heat applied to experience that distills its living essence.

Crystallization: the formation of an substance through the application of heat; an impure solid, retrieved from its dissolution; making clear that which has been obscured.

I have questions. With Fiegel’s book on Lawrence on pre-order, I read her earlier “bibliomemoir”, Free Woman, a self-reflective reading of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. I wonder: what is the relationship between bibliomemoir and autotheory? What use, really, are these relatively recent terms? Do they help us to better understand certain modes of expression? Do they further crystallize the very process of crystallization in literature?

Zooming out, we might also ask: what is the relationship between philosophy and literature? These two modes of writing feel more distinct — the former occasionally being a critical approach to the latter. And what about poetry? What is poetry’s relationship to philosophy? The Greeks saw them as opposites; it was necessary to shield philosophy from poetry’s deviations. Do we guard philosophy still? It seems, on the contrary, we have wonderfully let our guard down.

A more fundamental question may be: what are these things, these modes of writing, in themselves? It may be impossible to say. These modes are only what they are in relation to the examples of each we have read, and in relation to those things that are not literature, poetry or philosophy. They are types of flow expressed. Reading-writing and writing-reading are their own forms of natura naturans.

If this is so, does naming this productive relation concretize rather than crystallize? Reading takes on a subjective meaning if only because one can’t read everything. This is to say that writing — all writing — is the product of what we have read. Writing and reading are interlocked islands onto which we inexplicably import, through serendipitous encounters, our own flora and fauna. Writing and reading constitute an ecology in this regard. They substantiate our natures.

Gertrude Stein once argued that it “is awfully important to know what is and what is not your business… And so my business is how English literature was made inside me and how English literature was made inside itself.” She continues that “English literature is description simple concentrated description not of what happened or what is thought or what is dreamed but what exists”. The dividing line between philosophy and literature, then, following Stein, may be that, if the latter is “description”, the former is “explanation”. But many philosophers and poets, in turn, make a mockery of this distinction and blur the divide with glee.

As I write, a family with numerous children in tow sits down at a table near to me at the pub. A young boy starts reading as they wait for food. Soon, they are arguing over what constitutes a “graphic novel”. The boy’s mum asks what exactly is a “graphic novel”. He is certain that a graphic novel is a novel translated into “graphics”.

“No, there’s no original Dogman before the comic”, his sister insists.

For Susan Howe, poetry is also crystallization, but the substance left over is not opaque. A poem, she writes, “is a glass, through which light is conveyed to us.” This she says in an ode to the practical philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, the lens grinder. She weaves a tapestry between theologists, philosophers and poets, all of whom, like Spinoza — who was perhaps all three — struggled “to get at the predicate of substance.”

What is substance? In philosophy, substance is often that which grounds. For the Greeks, it was being itself — that which grounds and is essential to existence. Substance is flow; the river that cannot be entered twice. So, what are some examples of substances? For Spinoza, substance is God, nature. But by substance, he writes, “I mean that which is in itself and is conceived through itself, i.e. no concept of any other thing is needed for forming a concept of it.” But then, what is it that substantiates substance? Is substantiation not what is really being described and explained? A process rather than an object? Is substance nothing more, as Spinoza writes, than “nature naturing”? A process that cannot be conceived without a relation to itself? What are we to make of this self-referential idea?

Indeed, if God or nature are only ideas, then what grounds these ideas in themselves? Substance can here be transformed into convention, but convention can be broken. Spinoza was a heretic to many because, in hoping to give an account of substance’s predicates, he broke with godly convention. Indeed, what is God? What is literature in relation to God? How to describe these things in themselves through literature’s mechanisms? How is writing itself separate from nature? All that is left, really, is poetry.

As a result, Howe finds that, in expression, in poetry, substances can seem interchangeable. She writes of Wallace Stevens, the great American poet, and his interest in Spinoza and the new philosophy of American pragmatism, which argues that the meaning of something is best drawn from the practical consequences of its actualisation. (Crystallization is best understood through the gems and structures it produces.) But from pragmatism arises a confluence of practices that are not so easily separated. Indeed, despite the often utilitarian nature of pragmatism, Stevens uncovers the surrealism of activity’s interconnections, of the creative act and its consequences, of beings in their connected being. As he writes in “The Man with the Blue Guitar”, for example, as if entangled in a human nature that struggles to speak for itself in itself, stumbling through its co-existence with all things:

The person has a mould. But not
Its animal. The angelic ones

Speak of the soul, the mind. It is
An animal. The blue guitar —

On that its claws propound, its fangs
Articulate its desert days.

The blue guitar a mould? That shell?
Well, after all, the north wind blows.

A horn, on which its victory
Is a worm composing on a straw.

Howe finds an emergent postmodernism in Stevens’ modernism: the dissolution of all substantive tension. She asks: “If we have nothing but truth to leave, how do we distinguish ideas of what we were from ideas of what we are in vibrant contemporary compost jargon trash landfill”…?

I have been trying to make sense of my contradictions of late, as well as my own attraction to Lawrence, which sits somewhat uncomfortably alongside a reenergised passion for the feminist writing that followed in his wake.

I have been reading Lawrence with interest for almost two years now, even visiting his hometown of Eastwood in June last year, walking through the natural world that inspired him, but which he felt was becoming obscured by industrial capitalism.

I am fascinated by his struggles, his peculiar place in history, his thinking against all the prevailing attitudes of his time, both traditional and modernist. Nothing is clean in Lawrence and nothing is entirely as it seems. But in every book, whether he is exploring the shifting class consciousness of working-class men or the sexual awakening of newly born women, there is an attempt to express the coming-of-age of different people in all the messiness of an historical adolescence.

Leslie Fielder once wrote that the reason so much classic American literature takes the form of “children’s stories” is that America and its literature, at least in the first half of the twentieth century, had only very recently emerged from its own infancy. What other form could this literature take, a literature that reflects on a nation and its values so newly born? Lawrence himself was a wanderer, spending as much time in the new world as the old one. In his Studies of Classical American Literature, he even lays down the gauntlet for the New World to go further in its rebirth:

Where is this new bird called the true American? Show us the homunculus of the new era. Go on, show us him. Because all that is visible to the naked European eye, in America, is a sort of recreant European. We want to see this missing link of the next era.

Lawrence wants America to go further in its substantiation of itself through literature. He wants to read of an American America, rather than one born of European conventions. Of course, Lawrence’s taunts are somewhat defeatist, perhaps even premature. Here again, his contradictions are writ large. He makes demands on others to rise from the ashes of the old world, but struggles perpetually to do so himself. He reads American literature as if he wants to find a manual from the New World for a New Earth, in order to achieve his own self-actualisation, his own crystallization. But he is disappointed that the “true American” has found this as difficult as he has, as an old European on a line of flight. In his own reading habits, which he writes about from time to time, he finds himself torn, separated, undissolved, rather than newly together with himself and the natural world that so inspires him.

Something emerges regardless, even in his literary failures, which must be taken together with his successes to fully grasp Lawrence’s flow of becoming. Though he is easily criticised today, it is readily apparent that his flows are now obscured by the shifting and settling of literary convention. But literature is still moving, and moving on.

Covert affections persist in the soul under sleep only to meet in print where they can at least be felt by a reader. Each letter a separate presence yes but without restraining slippers.

Paul Valéry says the first line of a poem should come from the edge of things like a magic formula deep inside the chamber of a mollusc shell.

The other day, I went with a friend to the Newbridge Project, located on the Shieldfield estate in Newcastle. This hub of artistic practice was holding an “open house” event for a new project called The Wardrobe — a safe space for trans, non-binary and genderqueer people to get dressed. Overflowing with donated clothes, every item could be taken away for free (with financial donations optional). I had wanted to go for weeks, desperate to update my own wardrobe as I begin to externally affirm a long-repressed non-binary identity.

Rather than feeling self-affirmed, I currently feel more confused than ever. I wish I had the self-assurance of Mellors, who is something to himself at least, who understand his own existence even if no one else does. Or perhaps that is exactly how I feel. As I don new clothes that fit my frame, nonetheless changing and softening its shape, I fall out of the social in new ways. As a result, I feel newly at sea. In trying to express an essence, against the prevailing and restrictive categories of our society’s gendered organisation, I find not a crystallised self but a new formlessness.

Indeed, it is the strictures of form that I so want to escape. To take hold of my own nature, long ridiculed and repressed, is to break nervously with convention. But what to measure this breakage against? The more comfortable I feel in my own skin, the less comfortable I feel in the wider world. The softness of culottes and pleated skirts, which mirror an internal gentility that I often feel is lost under a masculine exterior, brings with it hard stares from passersby. I walk around anxiously, waiting to be punished for my new foray into self-expression.

I talk to a friend about love, about death, about that feeling sometimes experienced when animals enter our lives and we see in them the spirits of people possibly known to us, once upon a time, their love returning in animal form.

I’ve always wanted to meet and take in a stray. I imagine travelling through some sprawling nation, perhaps in Latin America, where strays are common, chancing upon a dog like me, open-hearted but alone; a dog with a kindred spirit to take home and welcome into my world. Maybe a dog with the spirit of someone once known to me.

“I thought you didn’t believe in spirits and souls and all that”, she says.

“I’m agnostic,” I reply. “I wouldn’t bet money on them, nor would I bet money on the existence of ‘god’, but I’m interested in how we come to understand certain experiences that evade easy explanation. And describing those kinds of experiences, beyond mere explanation, is where poetry lives, and I like poetry.”

We talk about family, about having children. The thought terrifies me, but I would like to have children one day, whether biological or adopted. Still, I fear I would only replicate, against all conscious intention, the genealogical neuroses I have been burdened with. I worry about how I would inevitably fuck them up.

“I can never see you harming anyone,” she says. “You are one of the most gentle souls ever.”

My parental anxiety is probably just a product of my low self-esteem.

“I wonder why a beautiful being such as yourself would ever have low self-esteem,” she adds.

“Being gentle sadly does not always equate to being treated gently.”

It is strange that this quest for a crystallised identity is encased in an exploration of fashion. What is fashion, anyway? To be fashionable is to find oneself attuned to what is popular. But the “fashion world” is also seen as a domain of expression that strides ahead of the limits of popular convention.

Non-binary pronouns are newly framed as “fashionable” by certain cynics. Perhaps this is a byproduct of new adventures in clothing and style.

The only heckle I have received recently, as I walked outward into the world in my new clothes, came from a man who passed me by on the street as I sat on a flight of steps, smoking a cigarette, waiting for that same friend. “I’d give you some change, mate, but you don’t look like you need it.” I think about this backwards compliment for days. Is that what I look like? An overdressed vagabond? I certainly feel like a stray, wandering without a home. But what is it to be seen an affluent in the midst of nothing less than subjective (and, to be honest, also financial) destitution? What is it for androgyny to be seen as nothing more than a fashion show?

Marcel Proust writes, “Style is a matter of vision, not technique.” Style is not just what is seen but how one sees. However, when style reduced only to the former, fashion becomes only a technical approach to the world, rather than an unclouded vision. How I see myself remains no doubt invisible. I take solace in the fact that I may, at last, be something to myself at least.

Still, I feel adrift, directionless, doomed to paradoxically make my life’s purpose a kind of indeterminacy. A flow in what direction? Outwards only, without technique, apart from conventional action. To determine such an approach in language always obscures something.

The assignation of masculinity weighs heavy. “There is always the violence of a sign that forces us into the search [for truth], that robs us of peace”, Deleuze writes in Proust and Signs. “The truth is not to be found by affinity, nor by goodwill, but is betrayed by involuntary signs.”

The resistance from many on the right to an adoption of fluid pronouns is a “culture war” in many senses. It is a war against the fluidity of language, which is nothing less than a war on poetry.

Susan Howe and her late husband visit Elizabeth Park in West Hartford, Connecticut:

We strolled among rose bed, rose bushes, rose ramblers, bending among them to read their names: Dainty Bess, Carefree Delight, Shreveport Grandiflora, the White Rose of York, Moonstone Hybrid Tea, Pristine Hybrid Tea, Floribunda, Hiawatha Rambler. Across the road in the annual gardens we saw high banks of white phlox, varieties of marigolds (Marigold Galore Orange, Marigold Galore Yellow, Marigold Little Hero Yellow, Marigold Bonanza), we saw impatiens, nasturtiums, forget-me-nots, ugly begonias, all sorts of lilies, some of the tiger ones a gaudy vermillion. I go on with these flower names not only because I enjoy making lists — but also to remind you, the reader, how words supersede and displace the reality of an object sensed in space and time.

Kate Zambreno reflects on the naming of mental illnesses and the ways they supersede those who suffer from them, considering the tragic life of Zelda Fitzgerald:

In her review of Nancy Milford’s rather old-fashioned biography [of Zelda], [Elizabeth] Hardwick also doesn’t look critically at Zelda’s diagnosis [of schizophrenia], and instead attributes most of her fall to her diagnosed mental illness. She writes, “In her, alas, the madness was real rather than indulgence” (as opposed to, I would imagine, the indulged madness of Scott’s crack-up or Eliot’s fragmentation). This is the fiction behind our medical model of mental illness — that a diagnosis by a doctor (by one doctor, several doctors) somehow makes it real, when it is instead rhetoric constructed and corroborated by authorities who have much at stake in the terms that they themselves have invented.

What is it to embrace a new sense of “fashion”, draped over this masculine frame? The expression of an identity through clothes becomes irreal, is seen as indulgent.

Just as I am beginning to feel better, recovering from a mental collapse, I find a depression still simmering underneath as I struggle to integrate a torn sense of self. I am held under the sign of “depression”, which is treated, but then linger there in stasis. Sertraline does little to address the substance of my identity denied.

Intrusive suicidal thoughts no longer shout in my ear; now they only whisper. Their persistent presence is no less distressing.

To identify as non-binary is not a mental illness, but illness nonetheless unfurls from the struggle against convention. Doctors and nurses masculinise my struggles. Depression is seen as a product of a fraught masculinity. I need only talk to other men, they suggest. I never argue that the opposite is true; that it is a repressed femininity that makes me feel so adrift.

My recent post on insomnia lingered in my drafts for a week. I thought I’d have more to say, then I started sleeping again. On waking up one day, I took another look at it and just hit “Publish”. Before I knew what had happened, I’d changed from sleeping only briefly and occasionally to sleeping all of the time. I haven’t seen too many people as a result. The “life of the mind” is the only life being lived, but even then only barely. I have little energy to go out, as any exertion, physical or mental, soon drags me back into unconsciousness.

Nevertheless, as my mood has stabilised, I have begun to return to work. Proofreading sadly does not pay enough for me to “make a living” from it; at the same time, reading is all I have at my disposal to help me remake my life. To live with books feels like entering a dream awake. Unfortunately, the effects of this are far from conducive to writing — it now takes days, even weeks, rather than hours, to articulate my feelings with any clarity. Regardless, sleep and dream are still all I’m thinking about, all I am preoccupied with.

Nin summarises the trajectory of Jungian psychoanalysis through a misattributed aphorism: “Proceed from the dream outward…”

Writers and psychoanalysts share a common project in this regard, Nin argues:

What the psychoanalyst does is what the novelist also has to do — probe deep enough until he finds where the chain broke. Traumatic experiences cause such breaks. The psychoanalyst repairs the broken links and allows the unconscious, which has its inception in the personal experience, to merge into a life beyond the personal.

The important thing is to learn from the writer the ways and byways of such passageways between conscious and unconscious. The unconscious can become destructive if it is disregarded and thwarted. Neurosis, based on fear, creates solitary cells to protect itself from invasion. Many of today’s writers have assimilated the findings of psychoanalysis and are more expect in linking the subconscious with the conscious. We are beginning to see the influence of dream upon reality and reality upon dream. Art is revealing to us the variety of levels on which we live. This may be what we seek to express in what we now call “multimedia.”

I’m sure we’ve all had days so intense that we dream vividly and become aware, on waking, that the mind has been busy ordering experience. This is happening to me all the time at the moment, even multiple times a day. Never before has a mental health episode felt so distinctly like a brain injury. This analogy may be ill-fitting; my broken sleep may be nothing more than a side effect of my medication. But still, the brain’s current over-reliance on dream feels distinctly like an attempt to repair a psychic fracture. Indeed, just as those with physical brain injuries may be induced into comas, so my body needs far more sleep than usual to heal itself.

Does this mean I am in recovery? I think so. But I also feel like I am in a kind of stasis, with the body halted as it waits for an unconscious stability to return, a stability that nonetheless remains elusive. It is a strange sensation. My brain is clearly working on something; it is healing, ordering, rectifying. But I feel like I’m the last person to be told of the outcome of the process. It’s like waiting for mail. I’m waiting for the process to be completed; for an assessment to arrive. I am waiting for the ease of an automatic writing to return, so that I might discover, through the pen’s unconscious glide, what the mind has decided. The link between consciousness and unconsciousness has been medically severed; the brain reroutes itself around a trauma, hoping to return to truth. I am now waiting for this truth to announce itself. In the meantime, I keep sleeping and reading.

It is reading more than writing that is helping me heal at the moment, but the scar left behind is taut, pink and raw, predisposed to tearing open again if I exert myself too much. What to do instead? I feel like I am only capable of sleeping. My life feels empty, writing feels pointless, a distraction from the world and little else. The more I try to write, the more I try to preserve this re-energised compulsivity, the more aware I am that the world beyond does not change or go away. I am playing Canute to material conditions, against a paradoxical tsunami of raw and stagnant water.

Over the past few days, reading and writing have ceased to be grounding. Whilst I am actively trying to rebuild my life’s foundation, I can’t help but wonder what exactly my “reading materials” are enabling amidst the process of reconstruction. The structure remains rickety, the foundation uneven. How could it be anything else?

If, as D.H. Lawrence once wrote, “one sheds one’s sickness in books”, Kate Zambreno explores women’s great repression: the pathologisation of writing as not conducive to wellness. Men who write anyway are brave; women who write anyway make the world nervous.

I don’t feel brave; I feel I write compulsively. My own writing makes me nervous in its own aftermath. I write to escape my own assignation, inevitably assigning certain roles to others. I try to treat myself with tenderness, hoping that to write about my life is not seen as a violence by those around me.

“Elizabeth Hardwick once spoke of the twin impulses to write — desperation or revenge.” I have been desperate, most certainly; I worry I will be read as vengeful. But there is no such impulse. Only tenderness, even when the writing itself feels coarse. A caressing of substance, in all of its fluidity. Substance is not a marble to sculpt but a flows to surf.

Always moving, and moving on.

Woodstock ’99:
A Mismanaged Structure of Feeling

The new fascination with Woodstock ’99, following the release of a new Netflix documentary series, is so surreal to me. Discussing it with some friends the other day, some of whom are only a few years younger than me, I was amazed they’d never heard about it before watching the mini-series for themselves.

Limp Bizkit’s performance of “Break Stuff”, and all the horror stories that emerged from the crowd, are seared into my memory from that time. It was a pivotal cultural moment for me growing up, as a nu-metal kid, the energy from which was dissolved with a frightening speed.

The nu-metal moment was bizarre in its promiscuity. In the documentary, much of the blame for the rioting that closed out the festival, and the crimes reported throughout its duration, is placed on the shoulders of American frat boys, who bought into the fury of a subculture that I would hardly associated with preppy kids who managed to go to college.

A year later, the video for Papa Roach’s 2000 hit single “Last Resort” offered a more accurate view — to my mind, anyway — of who this music was most associated with. The video’s inspired focus on the crowd, moshing out in an oddly clinical and affectless space, reveals their fans to be a racially diverse mix of bedroom-dwelling suburban metal kids and social outcasts; kids who would no doubt be actively bullied by the Woodstock frat contingents.

But nu-metal was so huge that its energies were taken up by many different social groups. Mainstream success, of course, trumped tribal allegiances at that time. Though I was admittedly quite young in 1999, I have no memory of an “In Bloom” of the nu-metal era, pouring scorn on a frat boy rage slowly gentrifying the discontent of the social underdog. Nu-metal seemed to speak to everyone.

My own first encounter with that sound, for instance, was in the playground at primary school, as everyone gathered round one kid’s Walkman to take turns listening to the sounds emanating from their tinny headphones. The rage on display was like a sonic peepshow: transgressive, taboo and perverse, but still abundantly accessible to anyone with a bit of pocket money. Everyone liked it, everyone listened to it, no matter their background or usual tastes. (My babysitter — my best friend’s old sister — who I can barely imagine as a grungy nu-metal kid now, later played me Limp Bizkit on my parent’s hi-fi, and from that moment I was obsessed with them until at least 2004, when nu-metal was overtaken in the popular consciousness, in the UK at least, by a disparate mix of indie, grime, freak folk and dubstep.)

But around the turn of the millennium, prior to this subcultural fragmentation, it is undeniable that nu-metal captured the zeitgeist and imagination of multiple, interlaced generations and demographics. It was a truly postmodern music genre in that regard, with different styles (and even emotional responses) able to exist together, seemingly without tension, making it a genre that seemingly had something for everyone.

Nu-metal is still fascinating for this reason, even if some of it hasn’t aged too well, precisely because it had a peculiar and quintessentially American melting-pot vibe, crossing lines between pop punk, hip hop, metal, grunge, drum ‘n’ bass… Just about every new music genre of the last two decades was thrown into its particle accelerator, giving rise to a mutant amalgam of sounds as the heat was turned up on popular culture by the anxiety of an unknowable future beyond Y2K.

The Woodstock ’99 documentary is made up of interviews with organisers, attendees, press, and some musicians (but far fewer than you’d expect). How each group remembers the event is telling. But the silence from many of those directly involved is deafening. Jonathan Davis from Korn is perhaps the only nu-metal band member to offer their reflections; instead we hear from Jewel and the lead singer of Bush (who, I must admit, I don’t remember at all and who hardly seem representative of that cultural moment).

On the whole, the documentary spends a lot of time focussing on the naivety of the festival’s original organisers, who supposedly hoped to rekindle the “Peace, Love and Understanding” of Woodstock’s near-mythological 1969 event. In true hippie fashion, however, the festival was organised by people with very little understanding of the material and affective conditions of the new present. Bands were booked based on their popularity alone, seemingly without chief organiser Michael Lang listening to any of their music — you’d think he’d pick a whole different set of headliners if he really wanted to promote peace and love. He and others had little appreciation of the rage that would be unleashed from the main stage. All these old hippies cared about was profit.

But the suggestion from one then-young organiser was that someone should have taken a closer look at the lineup seems misplaced. Yes, the organisers didn’t seem to understand who it was they were booking, but is the suggestion here that they should have eschewed the rage commingling between both a malformed mainstream and its blurry counterculture? Surely, if the festival wanted to represent that fine line between pop- and counter-culture landscapes in 1999, they couldn’t have invited anyone else.

The real error seems to be that the main organisers didn’t realise that they were the generation that Generation X was still largely mad at. It was clear on the ground that the organisers had no principles left to stand by. Though they blame the crowd for abandoning the original spirit of ’69, Woodstock ’99 was a poor and inverted rekindling of that moment from the get-go. Indeed, for all their allusions to peace, love and understanding, most of the crowd seemed frustrated with the pressure cooker they were funneled into, which was not an escape from the world outside the festival grounds but which only exacerbated America’s contemporaneous contradictions: rage expressed within and against a corporate-infiltrated, overpriced no-man’s-land grounded on a back of the nation’s military-industrial complex.

I almost wish this observation was a little harder to extract, as if it actually required an engagement with one’s critical faculties to be unearthed. In fact, as far as analogies go, it is bewilderingly on-the-nose: the festival featured overpriced and privatised necessities, sponsored by big corporate entities, sold on an old military airstrip. The festival did little to hide its immersion in everything that its attendees despised.

But even more intriguingly, this setting also foreshadows where much of this energy would be redirected into a few years later.

When thinking about why Woodstock ’99 is so engrained in my memory, despite only being nine years old myself at the time, I thought about how, for a nu-metal kid, that event was almost like our 9/11. (It sits directly in between the death of Princess Diana and 9/11 as two of the most memorable cultural events from my late childhood.) A tongue-in-cheek and no doubt egregious analogy to make, the event’s proximity to 9/11 proper is nonetheless an interesting thing to consider.

Reflecting on the festival even now, promoter John Scher describes those who participated in the riot at the end of the festival was “the lunatic fringe… that segment of the population was both entitled and fearful of growing up, of having to have a real job and a family and stuff like that.” But then, what happened to that frat boy rage that engulfed Woodstock ’99? It was serendipitously captured by that same military-industrial complex once again. The generation that tore up the grounds, leaving tales of destruction, sexual assault and hedonism in their wake, is the same generation that came to be a new and uncomfortable cohort of reluctant American heroes.

A few years later, this was made abundantly clear when Green Day released “Wake Me Up When September Ends”, the fourth single from their 2004 album American Idiot — an album that was seen as a critique of the Bush administration and its manufacturing of consent for a new war. As Alan DiPerna argued in an article for Guitar World at the time, the album “draws a casual connection between contemporary American social dysfunction … and the Bush ascendancy.” But in truth, the dysfunction was already there; nu-metal’s peculiar position in the pop-cultural landscape was already an indicator of how this dysfunction was spreading into every mode of contemporary expression; of how a generational discontent was oscillating wildly without a specific cause, instead touching everything in its immediate vicinity, a cross-pollination made possible and encouraged by the late-capitalist system it so often railed against.

Though “American Idiot”, as a single, may be a clear and pointed critique of the new political establishment, “…When September Ends” paints a more complicated picture, with its video of two quintessential skater kids in love, finding themselves torn apart by the war.

How surreal is this narrative in hindsight? What a strange time that was, when your average Green Day fan could be seen as a believable protagonist in a tragic love story spoiled by war.

It is notable to me that the girl in the music video looks very much like Avril Lavigne. When her breakout single “Sk8er Boi” dominated the airwaves two years earlier in 2002, it was unimaginable that the dregs of a Nineties slacker culture could be co-opted into the military-industrial complex. But this is precisely what we see in the video for “…When September Ends.”

It is a narrative that has not survived that moment. Most films that have dealt with the Iraq War since give us protagonists we are more familiar with — frat boys or rugged and precariously employed working-class men, no doubt directionless but far from culturally “alternative”. They are remembered now as individualists out of time, caught up in a conflict they barely understand, sucked into the appeal of an older form of patriotism.

I think about Clint Eastwood’s 2014 film American Sniper, starring Bradley Cooper, who could easily be swapped out for a Chris Pratt or any other new white American everyman action hero. But at that time, the lines were blurred between new American subjectivities. Although disenfranchised “alternative” kids, their clothing newly associated with mass school shootings, were set across from frat boys fighting for their country, in reality both groups were listening to the same kinds of music, filled with the same indeterminate rage. The entirety of that disenfranchised generation seemed to be caught up in a post-9/11 call to arms.

Perhaps, in this sense, Woodstock ’99 wasn’t so different from Woodstock ’69. The organisers may have mindlessly inverted their own values in favour of corporatized profiteering, but the chronology of American pop-culture was also inverted more generally in that moment.

Consider how the original festival was held towards the end of America’s involvement in Vietnam. It was a reaction against mindless military involvement in conflicts overseas. Woodstock ’99, on the contrary, presaged a new era of American military intervention. It encapsulated a fury that we might look back on now with horror, but many of the worst of the people present that weekend were shepherded into a new normality, breaking stuff overseas as well as at home.

Just as Woodstock ’69 appears now to be the end of something, so was Woodstock ’99: a riotous and Sadean last hurrah of a generational discontent that had been percolating for decades and found itself without anything truly tangible to direct its fury towards, as all counter-cultural principles had been siphoned off into a late-capitalist dead-end.

Sixties hippiedom was a zombified and corporatized shadow of its former self. It was never a moment that could be re-actualised. Instead, Woodstock ’99 presented an opportunity for a fin-de-siècle blow-out at the end of the millennium, an explosive and anarchistic fury that tried to breakdown the walls of a lost future, finally rupturing a structure of feeling that was both ever-present, undirected and uncontainable. Maybe it could have built up into something actionable, which really challenged the status quo? But really, all Woodstock ’99 represented was the fact that such an opportunity had long since passed.

And so, this “lunatic fringe”, which actually defined the average music fan’s frustration with a late-Nineties frenzied stasis, was absorbed into a cause that was not its. This is not to defend the horrors that have come to define the festival in its aftermath, but it is certainly telling where that fury was directed next. Indeed, to frame it as an aberration feels ahistorical. It was a fury that soon became useful to the establishment that has nonetheless spent so much energy denouncing it, proving to be fertile ground for a new age of American patriotism, as a generation’s discontent was given a cause by an attack on American soil, redirecting their self-harm into militarised reaction. There has arguably been no cultural development so disastrous, other than perhaps modernism’s infection with pockets of fascism following the lead-up to the Second World War.

Could we argue that Woodstock ’99 was similarly the primal scene of the alt-right in this regard? A generational discontent captured by the military-industry complex? It is hard to say. It certainly feels like we are only just recovering from the dissipation of this structure of feeling, which has borne both reactionary fruit and come to inspire a new generation of counter-cultural musicians. (Oneohtrix Point Never’s Garden of Delete resurrected the nu-metal palette in a new era; I similarly remember that, when I was at university, friends on music production degrees — including AYA, who I first met as a student in Newport, South Wales — were studying nu-metal production with a new and surprisingly seriousness.)

But this is the generation that came after Woodstock ’99, that saw this sound dissolve into (a)political recklessness. Indeed, the nu-metal generation that was at Woodstock ’99, rather than those slightly too young to go but old enough to watch it unfold at home, has now dissolved into the kind of social structure that Scher argued was initially rejected: they all have jobs and families now. Even Fred Durst has acquiesced to his “dad vibes” on the band’s ineffectual 2021 comeback single.

The song’s first verse ends: “Walk the line so fine with a blindfold”. Perhaps there’s no better summation of how everyone acted in that moment. But no longer.

It is what came next that warrants further attention. Rather than framing Woodstock ’99 as a cultural blip, it should be understood as a pivotal event that inadvertently shaped so much of the confusion of the 2000s. It was the end of something, yes, but it lay the groundwork for a rageful pop-cultural formlessness we have only just begun to untangle and deal with. Far from something to renounce and look back on with horror, our time would be better spent understanding just how the energy that fueled the rioting was co-opted by the powers that be. These rebels without a cause are not romantic figures to mythologise; on the contrary, it is worth exploring how that absence of a cause could be filled with just about anything, even something that ran wholly counter to the original cause of a generation’s disenfranchisement.

It seems unlikely that such an event could be repeated, with today’s younger generations having more than enough causes to be getting on with. But this was no doubt true of those who came before Generation X as well. Already we have seen how a specifically masculine disenfranchisement has been captured by an increasingly popular misogyny and conservatism. Frat boys and social outcasts continue to have much in common. Misdirected fury without political consciousness continues to cast a long shadow over the present.

Update: This article by Greg Saunier of the band Deerhoof adds a wealth of further context (and broader political critique) that the Woodstock ’99 documentary doesn’t get near. Well worth a read.

Capitalism and Control:
The Oedipal Rise of Steve Jobs

In Danny Boyle’s 2015 biopic of Steve Jobs, the Apple giant has forty-five seconds before he is due to go on stage, introducing the new Apple Mac to a raving crowd of enthusiasts. With the seconds ticking away, he is still thinking about what to include (or not include) in his speech. “I’m back and forth on the Dylan”, he says, trying to decide which verse of “The Times They Are A-Changing” he should quote. He opts, momentarily, for the alternate:

Come mothers and fathers throughout the land ,
And don’t criticize what you can’t understand.
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command…

John Sculley, then Apple’s CEO, says he’s just lost a bet to software engineer Andy Hertzfeld, who predicted Jobs would make the change. But Sculley is less interested in Jobs’ prevaricating. He wants to ask him a question.

“Why do people who are adopted feel like they were rejected instead of selected?”

“That came out of nowhere.”

Sculley offers up his own version of the rest of the Dylan verse:

Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command,
Your old road is rapidly aging.
So go fuck yourself, because my name is Steve Jobs,
And the times they are a-changing.

Jobs says, contrary to Sculley’s assumption, that he doesn’t feel rejected. “Are you sure?” Sculley asks. “‘Cause it’s not like the baby is born and the parents look and say, ‘Nah, we’re not interested in this one.'” Of course, things aren’t that simple. “On the other hand, someone did choose you.”

Jobs pauses for a brief moment, then offers up something by way of an explanation, a reasoning that seems to come from outside the space of Sculley’s reasoning. “It’s having no control”, Jobs says. “You find out you were out of the loop when the most crucial events of your life were set in motion. As long as you have control… I don’t understand people who would give it up.”

Jobs changes the subject. Why did Hertzfeld make that bet? But the topic doesn’t seem so distant from Jobs’ reflection on control. He is seemingly offended that someone else could so easily identify his own thought processes before he himself had made a decision. If Jobs is so concerned with control, with being the master of his own destiny, how dare someone else predict his own fate ahead of time. He controls the crucial events of his own life now. No one else. What disturbs him, however, is that someone like him, so self-assured of their own genius and radicality, could nonetheless be so predictable.

This moment feels central to so many of the interpersonal tensions that give the film its drama. A few minutes previously, for instance, Jobs is seen arguing with his ex-girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan, and repeatedly denies the paternity of his daughter, Lisa. It is a moment that soon jars with Jobs’ conversation with Sculley. In fighting with Chrisann, Jobs also seems overly concerned about his own sense of control, but he thinks little of how his behaviour will surely only couch his own daughter in feelings of rejection and indeterminacy. Despite this, he still names one of his earliest computers after her: the LISA.

In this way, Jobs’ familial connections echo his insistence that the Mackintosh be an “closed system” with “end-to-end control”. Indeed, there is little in Apple’s development that does not seem touched by Jobs’ genealogical anxieties. He rejects the apparent authoritarianism of IBM, Apple’s principal rival, which sees itself as the “father” of personal computing.

In the film, we are shown Apple’s famous 1984 Super Bowl commercial, in which IBM is reframed as a Orwellian Big Brother-like figure. Jobs stands and watches the advert play out from behind the screen, the scene flipped, rendering himself not so much as Big Brother as the Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain, who still cannot resist the desire to step out in front of it and command his own audience.

This is the irony of a film like Steve Jobs, which is structured through a series of behind-the-scenes conflicts, which all occur minutes prior to Jobs taking to the stage, actualising the true image of Big Brother as an authoritarian before a crowd that bizarrely desires its own repression. Wholly captured by his “reality distortion field”, as marketing exec Joanna Hoffman calls Jobs’ peculiar set of blinkers, Jobs cannot see how he is far more representative of the analogy he uses to attack his competition. In rejecting his paternity, like Oedipus, he is all the more fated to become the thing he hopes to deny.

When Sculley returns in 1988, he hasn’t forgotten his earlier exchange with Jobs. “Do you know what I’ve been thinking for the last four years? No newborn baby has control.” For all his apparent “genius”, it is clear that Jobs’ attempts to usurp the personal-computer market are ramshackle and indeterminate. He fails more than he succeeds, until his perseverance prevails. He waits in the wings, until the consumer is ready for his limited options. Though he claims himself as a revolutionary, all he offers his audience is a closed system, incapable of making connections to other forms of PC technology. Indeed, many of his products do not work. When he first leaves Apple, for a time, setting up a new venture called NeXT, Jobs shockingly admits the system does not yet have an OS. He wants to wait and see what Apple needs, manipulating the company that rejected him into buying out his new project. But here we find a kind of productive abortion, as Jobs rejects, even further, the functioning of his own system.

I’m reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s comments on “a producing/product identity”:

Everything stops dead for a moment, everything freezes in place — and then the whole process will begin all over again. From a certain point of view it would be much better if nothing worked, if nothing functioned. Never being born, escaping the wheel of continual birth and rebirth…

In denying his paternity — past, present and future — Jobs founds Apple on a frenzied stasis. His desire for control does not invent the future but denies its schizoid flows. We live in Jobs’ future, but it is one defined by disastrously Oedipal tendencies. Mark Fisher was right to refer to it as the OediPod.

The Demon of the Continent:
Notes on Prey

I watched Prey, the new Predator “requel”, on Disney+ the other day, signing up briefly to see what the platform had to offer (not much). I enjoyed the film well enough, but found it lacking, or at least undeserving of all the handwringing discourse it has spawned.

On Twitter, I wrote a short thread about it. I only watched the film because it was a main topic of discussion online that day. Some predictably complained the film — and the Predator franchise more generally — had “gone woke” in casting Sioux actor Amber Midthunder in the role of Naru, a toyboyish member of a Comanche tribe who wants to be a warrior and hunter, rather than a stay-at-home medicine woman, but who is dismissed by many of the men around her.

Most half-baked complaints described Naru as a “Mary Sue”, an idealized female character who is boring for her lack of flaws. It’s an unfair description, though there is something to be said for how underdeveloped the character is, but this is a Predator movie, after all. Was Arnie much more than a hunk of angry man-meat in the original? Relatively speaking, Naru is a far more three-dimensional character, but this is still little more than a fun game of cat-and-mouse. We needn’t inflate her character beyond the simple role she ultimately plays in the conflict.

Other complaints were concerned with the predictable success of the protagonist against this alien foe, as if it were unrealistic that the “primitive” Comanches could really take on and defeat the Predator, a technologically advanced member of a predatory alien species. But this too is a strange critique, particularly concerning the Comanche tribe, who were perhaps the most resourceful of warriors, adapting with apparent ease to the new technologies brought over and used against them by various colonisers.

The critiques are ill-founded and warrant plenty of pushback, but I found most of the counter-arguments giving the film a little more credit that it was due. It still wasn’t that great. And I think, for me, what I struggled with wasn’t the fact the film had “gone woke” but rather that — beyond a great deal of effort going into accurately representing Comanche culture — it made a bit of a mess of the political subtext of the originals.

Like Alien before it, the titular predator of the franchise has always been coded as black. It is tall, dreadlocked, wielding weapons and wearing armour carved with an alien language that looks like Nahuatl script. For me, this dreadlocked villain, still coded as black, hunting both Comanche and colonisers, makes the film’s political subtext all kinds of confused and anachronistic.

In the original film, set during the Vietnam War, the predator was clearly inspired by the Viet Cong, not so much “technologically advanced” than its prey as simply more at home in the jungle, able to use it to its advantage in a way that the white man could not. But Prey is set on the American frontier, and there the Predator becomes a kind of free-floating Other, lacking any real tension. The environment provides no real advantage; the Predator has no real upper-hand beyond its brute force and habit of invisibility.

I’m reminded of Arthur Jafa’s comments about the original Alien, in which the alien predator was played by Bolaji Badejo. He discussed the film in many interviews and made a number of artworks about it. As relayed by 032c magazine:

Describing the famous chest-burster scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien, filmmaker Arthur Jafa zeroes in on the moment where Parker (the Black engineer played by Yaphet Kotto) stares face-to-face with the monstrous baby alien. He describes it as a moment of recognition between two archetypal black men — the “good” one who works for the company and the “bad” one who has come to rape and pillage. But this constellation of recognition works three ways. As Jafa himself recalls: “The first time I saw it, I realized that I was that alien.”

A positive reading of Prey could argue that the same moment of recognition happens in the film. But this same sense of good and bad, of two kinds of alienation facing off against each other, never quite makes itself known. There is no moment of recognition. It’s just a free-for-all, with Naru even teaming up (albeit far from consensually) with the colonists to fight off a common enemy. Does this make her the “good native” in that regard? Is she really as “woke” as the film’s detractors make out? Nothing seems that clear cut.

As a result, the appearance of the colonisers ultimately dilutes the narrative. It would be a far more obvious “woke” film without them. Indeed, the tension between hunter and hunted would have been much more obvious too, even a little on-the-nose, had the Comanche faced off against the Predator without that additional threat. Indeed, how is the Predator any different to the colonisers? It isn’t really. But then what are we to make of the Predator’s annihilation of this other colonising evil, its indifference to the political potentials of the present it finds itself within? Are we to take away from this film that there is always something bigger or worse out there? That there are still “bad” Others to contend with, with the colonisers just a second-order villain ripe for mockery rather than the abject fear the Predator inspires? I don’t think the film goes that far, but at best it transforms the colonisation of America into scene-dressing; a backdrop against which to tell an all too familiar story, from which all the original political subtext is obscured.

Prey is a proper postmodern reboot in that regard. It offers an interesting viewpoint, but doesn’t ultimately say anything with it, which is weird considering how Westerns have so often been used to pass comment on the political tensions of their day. Indeed, many Acid Westerns in the 1970s complicated the “cowboys versus Indians” trope of classic Hollywood to interrogate the disenfranchisement that many felt during and after the Vietnam War, adding a great deal of nuance to the perspectives of both homesteaders and Native Americans. But Prey seems ignorant of all of that.

I’m reminded, as ever, of Leslie Fiedler. In his book The Return of the Vanishing American, he begins with a quote from D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in American Literature:

The moment the last nuclei of Red life break up in America, then the white man will have to reckon with the full force of the demon of the continent … within the present generation the surviving Red Indians are due to merge in the great white swamp. Then the Daimon of America will work overtly, and we shall see real changes.

Lawrence’s outdated language aside, his point is that the integration and sublimation of Native American life into contemporary American “reality” will defang the role of the Other that Native Americans have often played in its cultural artefacts. On the one hand, this suggests an end to the alienation of Native American life in mainstream culture, but on the other, it suggests that, without the caricature’s scapegoat to draw upon, white America will finally have to face up to the demon within, rather than the “demon of the continent” being externalised as an Other. And so, writing in 1968, Fiedler adds:

Fifty years ago, the demonic future which Lawrence foresaw seemed only the troubled dream of a foreigner never really at home on our soil, a fantasy for poets to exploit and serious scholars to ignore; but suddenly his then is our now, and all of us seem men possessed.

What is the Predator in Prey if not the clichéd “demon of the continent” set loose on those it symbolically represented? It is not an Other nearly internalised as white, nor is it — despite its appearance — suggested to be a racialised other in the context of the narrative. What is it then?

There’s a positive interpretation of the film to be excavated from this cleft, as outlined by Jafa, but I don’t think Prey warrants it. Being generous, we can see in discussions of Naru’s initiation ritual — in which she must successfully hunt something that is hunting her to become a true warrior — as the kind of moment of recognition that Jafa talks about. The name “Comanche”, after all, roughly translates as “enemy to all”. They were a warrior people who fought tooth and nail against other tribes and other colonisers. (In the film, it appears that other members of the Comanche tribe become attracted by the horses owned by the French; in reality, the Comanche stole and then bred horses from Spanish colonisers, allowing them to leave the mountain regions they had originally called home and conquer the plains of the soon-to-be southern states.) Does Naru, then, see herself in the Predator, as that other enemy to all? A creature that, we might imagine, has come to Earth to complete an initiation ritual of its own? Perhaps. But does she not also see herself, inevitably, in the eyes of colonisers, who are reduced to another form of prey?

These questions suggest a certain kind of tension hard-baked into the film. But in truth, I felt none of it. All that is left is a trace of other more politically astute Westerns, but politics of Prey seem to rest solely on an accurate depiction of Comanche life, with little else actually taken into account. The film doesn’t have to do this — it is a lot to ask of a blockbuster streaming (in the UK at least) on Disney+ — but then what are all the commentators reading into exactly? The film becomes culture war fodder, and its superficiality is less a fault of the film itself than the discourse it has been catapulted into. It is the conversation around the film itself that is anemic.

So what is the history that Prey, whether consciously or not, falls into? To my mind, Naru is not a Mary Sue; if anything she is a postmodern example of what Fielder calls the “anti-Pocahontas”.

The story of Pocahontas that we are all familiar with — the forbidden love affair between Native American woman and a colonising Captain — is a familiar trope, where the Native American woman becomes, in the words of Otto Kahn, “the mythological nature-symbol … chosen to represent the physical body of the continent or the soil.” But in the nineteenth century, Pocahontas as nature-symbol was not simply a humanised analogy for the white man’s conquest of land.

Fielder notes that, eventually, “Pocahantos became somehow a symbol of patriotic pride to all Americans, as well as our first mythic Indian and a subject of sentimental interest to women”; she was “the first symbol of the United States, representing the Western wilderness reclaimed by civilisation.” She wasn’t simply something to possess but something to be — a literary subject, an literary Other, for white readers to internalise; not so much representative of the acquisition of land but its bounty of possibility. Her becoming-woman was adopted by all, but especially white women. It was only later that the tale was reframed as bringing nature to heel; it was only later she was reframed as a woman that must obey rather than a woman representative of the free spirit of the New World.

At every turn, the likes of Pocahontas, and other mythologised Native American women like Sacagawea, are framed in conflicting ways, but always through the eyes of whiteness:

Not only in the United States, but on its border as well, the legend of the redemptive Indian girl has been adapted to local conditions and to other myths already shared by the peoples involved. Both Pocahontas and Sacajawea are, of course, Protestant versions of the encounter with the Indian, WASP fantasies of reconciliation in the wilderness.

Is Naru any different? The film has been lauded for its accuracy in representing Comanche culture, language and beliefs, but is the story itself not still underpinned by a Protestant redemption arc? This makes the story of Pocahontas little more than an exoticized Cinderella story. She is an individual whose “degradation” allows for “her later miraculous success”, making “her legendary”.

Naru, of course, differs from Cinderella in that her virtue is not concretized by her willingness to marry the white man. But she is nonetheless othered by her own kin, seen as aberrant in her flaunting of gender roles that were arguably not so firm in Comanche culture proper. Over time, following Pocahontas’s reduction to a nativized Mary Sue, she was reclaimed by many women, who insisted, in Fielder’s words, “that their essential fable be not obscured by such irrelevant male concerns, that the story remain true to their central vision of their lot and be projected in terms of their own sort of heroine: a strong but immensely ordinary woman — preferably a mother — who is confronted by a male antagonist and, finding no male champion, must deliver herself.” But the problem here is that these women were almost always coded as white; in many earlier stories, in fact, she was often white explicitly, kidnapped by Native Americans only to embed herself in their culture and turn against white patriarchy. It is this shift that allows these women to “constitute the true anti-Pocahontas: our other — alas, realer — mother, the Great WASP Mother of Us All, who, far from achieving a reconciliation between White men and Red, turns the weapon of the Indian against him in a final act of bloodshed and vengeance.”

It was this tension that fascinated many early American writers. Fielder notes how Thoreau, for instance, believed that “the subject matter of the new American mythology has to be: the Indian at the moment of first contact with the White invader.” Many writers later struggled against this recentring not only of Native tribes but also of women. Ernest Hemingway comes in for ample ridicule by Fiedler in this regard, who replaces “nostalgia with parody, sentimentality with mockery, polite female masochism with gross male sadism.” This reactionary trope never quite found its footing, however. Audiences were already prepared to move beyond this chauvinism by the time it made its stand. By the 1960s, it was “dusky sex queens which the age demanded, and seedy clowns in full Western regalia to act out for laughs the death of the West”.

In Prey, this is, in part, what we are left with. The French colonisers are hapless, sadistic figures, overconfident in a new land and doomed to fail because of that. (The new right, of course, hates this.) But Naru herself, though far from sexualised, still remains tied to the ideal of a WASPy heroine. She rejects her place in her own order, which is less Comanche than Protestant, and becomes the arch individual heroine of the tale.

The specificities of indigenous life, then, though signalled too, are ultimately dissolved and made synonymous with white narrative tropes.

Perhaps this reading is a little too cynical and unfair, but what we find in Prey, I think, is an uncomfortable middle ground that is ripe for discussion in the culture wars. On the one hand, a new right stereotypically and ahistorically rejects the film for the ways it subverts a chauvinism that has not been in vogue for almost sixty years; on the other hand, what more liberal cultural commentators observe and champion are a set of tropes that, underneath the attempts at historical and cultural accuracy, are nonetheless firmly couched in a white literary tradition.

In this regard, Prey is far from an innovative tale. Seemingly unbeknownst to itself, it smuggles in tropes that have been around for decades, which do not make it “woke” or “subversive” in any meaningful way. Its political significance is projected onto it from without, as cultural discourse champions the care given to a politics of representation. And this is not something to dismiss, but it is, realistically, all that is there. Attached to a lineage of narratives that stretch back to the founding of American literature, it says more about how confused contemporary American identity is; how amorphous and unsettled it is from its own mythologies. This, in itself, is interesting to a point, but there is little in the film that points a way forward to the sort of new mythology that American culture might need. It languishes in political confusion, and it is this same confusion that the discussion around the film makes painfully apparent.

Researching Sleep:
Writing Lacunae

I remember when my mum first got sick, she woke up from spinal surgery in a fury. The doctors said this reaction was uncommon, probably a side effect from the steroids, but one they only tended to see in alcoholics. “Is your mum an alcoholic?” I didn’t think so at first, although she had always loved a petit rosé

When I later learnt to drive and adopted her car in the midst of her sickness, I found tiny bottles of optics, shots of wine, sequestered in the glove compartment, in the side panels, underneath the seats.

She’d been anaesthetised for hours. Was it really because of the drink that she’d passed through the veil?

She was a terror on the ward. She was surrounded by old women with broken hips and slipped disks. Her illness and the company she was forced to keep made her feel older beyond her years and she hated it. She screamed whenever she was awake. She accused the orderlies of raping her. She would show the world where they touched her, uncovering herself no matter who was present, revealing her vagina from under her gown, screaming into her vulva like a crime scene. No one believed her. There was something else in her eye. They were paranoid delusions, they said. I never knew whether to believe her or not. She didn’t want to be there, that much was clear. Who would? She felt unsafe. Was her fear exaggerated to the point of visions?

It was never clear, in the end, whether this fear was real or imagined. It changed shape. Tales of rape in the night shifted to daylight murder plots. She said so much but was never heard.

When she was moved to the psychiatric hospital, her fury did not subside. It was a calm space. The ill were quiet, ghostly, dragging their feet and constantly rolling cigarettes. The air around them itself felt medicated. They wandered the halls whilst she stayed in her room. You could always hear her. Or at least she made herself known whenever she was told that we had arrived. Our arrival prefigured our leaving and she did not want us to leave her there. It was often the case that we were forced to leave after barely saying more than “hello”. Indirectly, our concern, the duty we felt to visit, always caused undue disruptions.

She was discharged back home after a few weeks, not because she had improved but because her madness was an obstacle to the recovery of other patients. She was like a patient from a film, with no interest in her own recovery; the only one who had truly flown over the cuckoo’s nest. Her madness was a cliché that could not be tolerated. The ward was not a space of respite whilst she was in it. She was too unwell to be hospitalized.

I am reading Emma Holmes Coleman’s The Shutter of Snow, her fictionalized account of her own stay on a psychiatric ward in the early twentieth century. I keep being drawn in by her references to sleep, to sedation, set across from her intense desire to write, to express herself, to sing and be heard.

The nurses will not let her husband visit her.

You will have to learn to sleep before you can see him.

How could they expect her to sleep when she was going through all of it? They didn’t know. She had swung about the room from the ceiling and it was a swinging from the cross. There had been the burial. She was lying quietly in the bed and being covered over her face. She was carried quietly out and put in the casket. Down, down she went in the rectangle that had been made for her. Down and the dirt fell in above. Down and the worms began to tremble in and out. Always she had kept telling of it, not one word of it must be forgotten. It must be recorded in sound and after that she could sleep.

She must recall everything.

Marthe Gail, the protagonist in The Shutter of Snow, is so disconcerting to me. Her fixations: always asking after her husband, incessantly; always the assumption that whoever is near her plans to kill her. I see my mother in Marthe Gail. I wonder if she saw the world, the ward, as poetically and disturbingly as Holmes did. I am left somewhat grateful that, unlike Gail, my mother did not see Jesus Christ in herself.

My nana called me. My cousin had told her I was unwell. I haven’t been to see her since I moved up to Newcastle. She’s only a short Metro ride away in Sunderland. But I hadn’t thought about her since I lost my head.

“I don’t go out anymore”, she said. My cousin had taken her out recently, however, to buy a new pair of slippers. But that was it now. The rest of her shoes were taken away and given to a local charity shop. “One less hassle when I finally pop off.”

Always so candid about her own death. She’s in her eighties now. Her hips are bad. So many of her friends are dead. She is stoic in the face of her dwindling years. But she is less candid about me. We skirt around how unwell I’ve been, or indeed how exactly it is that I have been unwell. I didn’t tell my cousin much, but gossip always travels fast in this family. Maybe my dad told her.

“Just as long as you’re still here”, she says tellingly before hanging up. There it is. A glimmer of candour.

She never liked my mum. “We tried to warn your da”, she always says when the topic of mum arises. “Just before he walked down the aisle, your granda said he could get out before it was too late.”

They always knew she was mad. Well, now so am I.

The crooks of my books all have tobacco in them. When I am gone, there’ll probably be enough for a cigarette. Have one on me.

Going outside makes me anxious but I weather it. I feel hyperalert beyond the threshold. It punctures the surface of lethargy, of the cloak I wear in daylight; an insomniac shawl, all numbness. I fear enemies round corners who would make me ill. I don’t know what they look like. Some I do know. I know fear.

I sit outside the Cumberland and wait for some friends. People pass by in a river of faces. I worry what other bodies, other monstrosities, might be carried by the current.

I’m almost two weeks into my present insomnia. Nothing helps. I get to sleep but only sleep for a few hours at a time. I woke up this morning and have never felt so heavy. My body felt like rusted steel, impossibly. My mind thick, waterlogged.

I can still write through it, thank fuck, although reading takes a bit more effort. When I do write, I find it is harder to connect up the images. An already fragmentary writing feels even more fragmentary.

I think about that film, The Machinist, with a skeletal Christian Bale. I haven’t seen it in many years but remember its atmosphere, the constant sliding between dream and waking, the mechanical working-through of life, body all joints and stiff movement, affectless, numb.

I am caught on that phrasing: “dream and waking”. How do those verbs function? Are they both verbs? I could have said, “between dreaming and being awake”, but then awake-ness is set across from dreaming, made into a stable state of being rather than a process unto itself. It is a word that can’t be written, feels wrong, without some sort of qualifier. Could I be between “dream and awake”? The syntax feels jagged. “Awake” feels so final, complete. One word mirrors the other, five letters each, but functioning differently regardless. Right now “awake” doesn’t feel stable, as dream lures me back at intervals.

“Dream and waking”, as if “dream” is at once a place, a process, an environ that is passed through; as if “waking” is also a process in itself, never completed. I never stop waking up, until the slide back to dream begins again. A problem of grammar lived and felt.

I decide to read some Derrida, feeling newly receptive to the problems he explores. I’ve been reading a lot of Judith Butler as well, feeling suddenly the gap in my knowledge, or rather the ambient knowledge of their texts only ever gathered second-hand.

I remember when I first read volume one of Marx’s Capital, the slog of reading its first hundred or so pages, the feeling of being bored by it, not so much because the text was uninteresting but because I realised how much I already knew, how a Marxian framework had already been inscribed on my knowledge of the world, how commonplace this once world-changing prose had become.

I feel the same way now in reading Gender Trouble, newly aware of the ways that Butler has been a shadow over so much I have already read. But what a striking feeling of influence, to feel that ambient knowledge already about a book that is no older than I am. But then also how much is lost, how specific the text can feel, how loose its ambient application outside of itself.

The popular understanding of Butler’s “gender performativity” is often acknowledged as lacking what she explores in her text. Gender is not performative in the sense it is an identity adopted and acted out, like a character. Her sense of performativity is a little more nuanced.

For Butler, performativity is instead an instability. “Gender ought not to be construed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow”, she writes; “rather, gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts.”

Gender as the stylization of the body becomes a kind of gendered and embodied grammatology; a body-language learned but ever shifting, malleable, capable of rupture in poetic acts of expression; the translation of a body into a predetermined “social temporality“, mimicking only but never actualizing an apparent truth, like thought rendered in speech turned to text, articulated but often limited by the constraints of a common sense, the truth of one’s self reduced to a trace, fading, barely visible.

Butler wrote a new preface for Derrida’s Of Grammatology, celebrating the fortieth anniversary of its first translation into English by Spivak, in which she wrestles with the apposite difficulty of translating a text so concerned with the elusivity of language. “If the problem of writing, the central problem of Of Grammatology, depends on a generative collapse of the mimetic ideal mandating that writing reiterates the sounds of speech, and if translation engages this same problem — the generative collapse of mimesis — then we should perhaps check the inevitable lamentation over the loss of the French in the English, precisely as we learn why it might be wise to question the lure of translation as a faithful sonic reincarnation.”

Butler’s own work on gendered mimesis echoes throughout. How to translate Derrida into her own works? Perhaps she has already done this, implicitly, walking through the ruin of deconstruction and finding gender there unravelled. So much else too, of course. Life in general, lived and dreamed.

Language, for both Butler and Derrida, is made to be broken, is always its own ruin. So too is the body that speaks and writes and gestures towards the stuttering utterances of the unconscious mind.

The other night I went to bingo with a friend. We spent a lot of the preamble, up until the quick-fire games, drinking cheap drinks and talking about our sleep. We talked about Jung, about our nightmares, about the surrealism of recurring dreams, the doubt that arises from dreamed mimesis — am I dreaming this dream again? or has one dream made such an impression on me that I only feel its echo, a kind of unconscious déjà vu, not the strange sense of an already seen but an already dreamt?

She shows me a dream map from Reddit, documenting the most common dreams in each country of the world. In the United Kingdom, we most often dream about our teeth falling out. Predictably so, perhaps, since our bad teeth are a stereotype of my waking selves as well.

In neighbouring Niger and Nigeria, the latter dreams most of sex, the former of death.

The persistent nightmares of the mentally ill are a sorry affliction. No matter how we may feel during the day, coping and managing with our fractured synapses, the unconscious is always there to remind us, to score further the anxieties that linger beneath the waking day, as if there is only truth in dream, but a truth no one can fully grasp.

I show her my dream diary, @matt_mjlc — years of tweets summarising the night’s unconscious encounters. They lack detail, given the character limit, and I am struck by how few of them I remember long after they were written down.

There are considerable gaps between the dreams of late. It is rare, at the moment, that I remember my dreams vividly enough to translate them on waking.

The problem of translation feels ever present. Shifting from one language to another is explicit, but how to translate affect into words? How to translate dream narrative into waking plot? “The Question”, adapted from Butler: “How does the translation intervene in [consciousness], even transform the relationship, the missteps and anachronisms, which seem always to be happening between [dream] and [waking]? What is lost, what lives on, and how does that living on happen?”

What is the relationship between dream and waking existence? Why does the mind proceed in such a jumble? Why does it not mimic waking experience more lucidly? Perhaps it does. Perhaps this world is nothing more than fleeting signs and symbols, effects and affects, that we piece together on the fly, with space-time nothing more than an illusion, a ruin, a problem of translation.

I remember talking to my ex’s dad about imaging our dreams. I was reading Heidegger’s Being & Time at the time.

In various sci-fi films, we see examples of mental imaging, where a machine learns to code the brain’s processing into images imagined. One film I saw once, which I appropriately cannot remember the title of, shows dogs, hands, mothers, an American dream rendered in a matrix-like stream of code given sly form and shifting shape. He says this is impossible, at least for now. It is a process of digital translation we have not yet figured out. He likens it to the recoding of film footage. We can record the raw data, but how to turn it into an MP4? We do not yet have the capacity for that yet. Perhaps we never will.

Digital imaging is first made possible, we might argue, through our understanding of the chemical and material processes of photography. Not a coding of data, as such, but an understanding of a chemical reaction: light rendered on paper as if by magic. It is photography, rather than sight itself, that is translated into the digital realm, as negatives are recorded in a new format.

Neural imaging seems distinctly non-visual. Pattern recognition does not give rise to mimetic representations of the images of thought. What are mental images anyway? We translate thought into visual metaphors, but is this really how the mind’s eye sees? Does the brain not translate itself into metaphor in this way on our behalf? I met someone a few months ago who does not think this way, whose mind’s eye is blind, who does not think in images. It is not a prerequisite to thought. I wonder, how much is lost in the visualisation process? What is retained? The mind gestures towards habitual sight, but putting this habit to one side, can we describe otherwise how the brain “sees”?

Out in the garden, I sit at my laptop and type. I leave my notebooks to rest for a while, thinking faster, some days, than I can write by hand.

As the battery dwindles, so do I. The screen dims, entering battery-saving mode. I carry it back to my room to recharge and take the opportunity to do so myself.

These days, I nap when my laptop does.

Marthe Gail, the protagonist in The Shutter of Snow, is not allowed to write, like so many women who were hospitalised at that time. She is hospitalised following a psychotic break after the birth of her child, through which she herself feels reborn, reincarnated as Christ.

The novel is described as an example of “magic realism”, but what is captured most beautifully is the line erased between dream and waking by madness.

She smuggles a pencil and scrap of paper into her room, desperate to write, to tell her husband where she is — she presumes he doesn’t know, but surely he must. Her words don’t so much come from within as from without. Dreaming is external, hallucinatory. It is not the translation of some interior landscape, at least as far as she is concerned, but an attempt to mimic the strangeness of the world she now exists in. She does not sleep. She must record, pinning the world to the page like an etymologist turned entomologist.

The words unfolded and came out on the paper. They slid up and floated and came down and stood in a line. She was making them, she was saying things with a pencil on a small piece of yellow paper. It was a letter to her father and there were the words, the words that she was capturing out of the red lights and pinning under her pencil like squirming moths. The moths had yellow tails and pulled desperately away from the pencil.

A Freudian slip… In writing out the final sentence, it is mothers who have yellow tails and pull desperately away from the pencil. I correct it, but the error is telling.

In many countries, dreams of pregnancy are the most common.

I used to analogously describe the publication of my first book like a pregnancy. It was an analogy that always felt presumptuous, stereotypical, perhaps even a little sexist. I’m not sure. But the feeling was striking, the metaphor resonant. The book felt like a child, birthed through a protracted labour, then set loose on the world to live a life of its own, wholly separate from my own, despite the fact I felt like so much of my life was contained within it.

It was a process of separation that I found traumatic. It was a kind of empty nest syndrome. Or perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps it was only a shadow of that more profound of processes. But I could not think how else to translate the feelings into something more commonly appreciated and understood. Perhaps this oft-repeated metaphor was a mistake, a “faux amis” uncovered through a false translation. I don’t use that metaphor anymore.

Anne Carson on Aristotle and error:

In his discussion of metaphor in the Rhetoric
Aristotle says there are 3 kinds of words.
Strange, ordinary and metaphorical.

“Strange words simply puzzle us;
ordinary words convey what we know already;
it is from metaphor that we can get hold of something new and fresh”
(Rhetoric, 1410b10-13).
In what does the freshness of metaphor consist?
Aristotle says that metaphor causes the mind to experience itself

in the act of making a mistake.
He pictures the mind moving along a plane surface
of ordinary language
when suddenly
that surface breaks or complicates.
Unexpectedness emerges.

Butler quoting Derrida’s article, “What Is a ‘Relevant’ Translation?”:

“…translation in the strict, traditional, and dominant sense of the term encounters an insurmountable limit — and the beginning of its end, the figure of its ruin.” Then he adds in parentheses that seem to bear an inverse relation to the claim they contain, “(but perhaps a translation is devoted to ruin; ruin is perhaps its vocation and a destiny that it accepts from the very outset)”…

Carson on the unexpectedness of metaphor and the strange:

At first it looks odd, contradictory or wrong.
Then it makes sense.
And at this moment, according to Aristotle,
the minds turns to itself and says:
“How true, and yet I mistook it!”
From the true mistakes of metaphor a lesson can be learned.

Not only that things are other than they seem,
and so we mistake them,
but that such mistakenness is valuable.
Hold onto it, Aristotle says,
there is much to be seen and felt here.
Metaphors teach the mind

to enjoy error
and to learn
from the juxtaposition of what is and what is not the case.

“If ruin is there from the word go, then so, too, is mourning, prior to any nameable loss, which is surely why Derrida confirms that translation is a work of mourning, more of a task than a given.” Translation is always an act of remembrance, from which “there is nothing outside the trace”. This means, Butler continues, “we start to refer to what something is, or we start to explain what the original text is prior to any translation, any derivation, when we write not only as if the origin were thinkable without the derivation, but also as if the past could appear without being occulted or eclipsed by the very means by which it signifies.”

Translation, even writing itself, is the Search for Lost Time. Is it any wonder Proust begins his recherche — not just a “Search” in French, but always also a “research” — with a scene of falling asleep whilst reading?

For a long time, I went to bed early. Sometimes, my candle scarcely out, my eyes would close so quickly that I did not have time to say to myself: ‘I’m falling asleep.’ And, half an hour later, the thought that it was time to try to sleep would wake me; I wanted to put down the book I thought I still had in my hands and blow out my light; I had not ceased while sleeping to form reflections on what I had just read, but these reflections had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was what the book was talking about…

I’m not drinking. Not really. Of course, I still drink sometimes. I am sleeping all the time and cannot quench my thirst. I drink a beer just to drink something different. But it tastes different too. The last pint I had caught my tongue off guard. Every first couple of sips leaves a lingering rot, as if I could taste a hint of putrification, as if I could taste the beer’s beginnings, an echo of the process of fermentation, the ferment of euphoria. But I don’t drink enough to get drunk. Always the depression that follows at the moment. The effects of alcohol are now all too predictable, simplified. I taste the brew and brood.

…we expect that where there is a trace, there is something prior to it that has left it — the trace of a life, a book, a thought. But if the trace is the means through which what is prior is marked, then it is at once lost and found in the course of that marking. In this sense, the trace is the origin of the origin. But when we make a claim like that, we distinguish between the origin of a sequence, understood as a cause or primary movement, and what originates that very way of thinking about origins, its condition of possibility…

Writing is always acausal. It is, “Derrida argues… invariably retroactive.” Where does writing come from? What is its origin? Experience? What is experience? When is writing not still the translation of experience? The present remains elusive but always full of possibility. “Whatever origin we find is constituted and erased by that retroactive form of positing.”

Whats back of that door? Its the Day Room, when you get better you can go there. What do they do there? They sew in the afternoon. O do you suppose they would let me sew? Let you said Mrs. Welsh, theyll make you.

Anne Carson in a poem to Emily Dickinson:

Save every bit of thread.
One of them may be
the way out of here.

In The Shutter of Snow, Marthe eats threads in the asylum.

Mental Health is (Still) a Political Issue:
On Mark Fisher’s Lost Futures
at the Moth Club

I’ll be in London on September 11th to give my first IRL talk on Mark Fisher’s work since 2020. Hosted by Deeper Into Movies at the Moth Club in Hackney, it’ll be a talk about mental health and capitalism, and how to continue thinking about their relationship through Fisher’s work.

You can find more information and get tickets via DiceFM here. Abstract below:

Mental Health is (Still) A Political Issue: On Mark Fisher’s Lost Futures

A talk by Matt Colquhoun

This talk will reconsider Mark Fisher’s notion of “lost futures”, its relation to capitalist realism and his work as a whole, and how the concept may be rethought positively, rather than depressively, after his death. Focusing less on Fisher’s own suicide, which now casts a long shadow over his work, we will consider the suicidality of capitalism as a socioeconomic system in general, and reaffirm why, as Fisher himself insisted, “mental health is a political issue” that must be addressed if we are to reclaim the futures that capitalism denies us.

Notes on Estrangement:
Decreation and Ekstasis

Simone Weil talks of “decreation” as a kind of divine renunciation. Decreation, she says, is not the same as destruction. The latter subtracts away to nothingness; the former lets “something created pass into the uncreated.”

It is Weil’s way of explaining God’s apparent indifference to us. “It is God who in his love withdraws from us so that we can love him”, she writes. Renunciation, then, is removing ourselves from the world as God did. It is the “[i]mitation of God’s renunciation in creation.” If “God renounces being everything”, then we too “should renounce being something. That is our only good.”

Weil’s position reads to me like a kind of narcissism — not the pop-pathological variety, but that original kind: a transformative self-love; that of Ovid’s Narcissus, who undoes himself like nature in winter, only to be reborn as a symbol of spring. “We participate in the creation of the world by decreating ourselves”, Weil continues.

Though this sense of decreation grounds Weil’s sense of a “Catholic communion”, I read in her writings a kind of perverted Stoicism, the inversion of a twentieth-century Spinozism, but I also hear the echo of her conversations with the likes of Joë Bousquet, who accepted his wound, renounced the world and made a new one. It makes for a complex worldview. On the one hand, her writing is shot through with a kind of Catholic guilt, a kind of affirmation of human suffering; but on the other, it recognises this suffering only to renounce it, or at least to renounce it as a “sad passion” that may define our beginning but must be rejected if we are to reach the end. It is in this way that we can “only possess what we renounce; what we do not renounce escapes from us.”

What attracts me to this kind of philosophy, which I have discovered in so many places of late through a persistent serendipity, is perhaps its bloody-minded refusal to self-pity and instead step forward into fear and unknowing. It is to face up to the crippling misery of the modern world that prefigures one kind of death and to instead ask for another. If we find ourselves in a depressive position, where engaging with the world as it is seems pointless and insufficient, then we should do what we can, and live in some way, that makes demands on that world to change. As Weil writes:

The extreme difficulty which I often experience in carrying out the slightest action is a favour granted to me. For thus, by ordinary actions and without attracting attention, I can cut some of the roots of the tree. However indifferent we may be to the opinion of others, extraordinary actions contain a stimulus which cannot be separated from them. This stimulus is quite absent from ordinary actions. To find extraordinary difficulty in doing an ordinary action is a favour which calls for gratitude. We must not ask for the removal of such a difficulty: we must beg for grace to make good use of it.

In general we must not wish for the disappearance of any of our troubles, but grace to transform them.

Here again, the echo of Bousquet: “My wound existed before me; I was born to embody it.” She continues:

For men of courage physical sufferings (and privations) are often a test of endurance and of strength of soul. But there is a better use to be made of them. For me then, may they not be that. May they rather be a testimony, lived and felt, of human misery. May I endure them in a completely passive manner. Whatever happens, how could I ever think an affliction too great, since the wound of an affliction and the abasement to which those whom it strikes are condemned opens to them the knowledge of human misery, knowledge which is the door of all wisdom?

I think about Antigone, who did what was, in the eyes of her king, so deeply wrong because she could not bear to renounce her kin. But this refusal seems to be born of a sense that she would not wish her suffering on another, and so she makes a stand, renouncing instead a higher power, her king, to preserve what feels sacred in her suffering and beyond the injustice of this world. Her family has been cut down, she has been uprooted, unborn, but she carries something core with her and challenges the world as it exists around her. She has been uprooted by forces beyond her control; all that is left is for her to uproot herself. As Weil writes: “It is necessary to uproot oneself. To cut down the tree and make of it a cross, and then to carry it every day.” Antigone is crucified on the cross she makes herself.

My Dad came up to visit a couple of times recently. It’s hard to watch him age. His second visit coincided with an old school friend coming to stay with my flatmate and I for a few days.

The three of us were really close once. We still are, in lots of ways. They weren’t just my friends but family-friends. We’d go on holiday together and hang out at school every day. There’s a comfort that comes from that kind of deep-seated familiarity. No matter how many years have gone by in silence, there is always still love there.

It feels so strange. I’m quite bad at staying in touch with people who aren’t in my immediate vicinity. These few days of reconnection are not down to any effort made on my part but a closeness more actively preserved by others that I feel I have remained near to unexpectedly. Some relationships just endure regardless. I see it in my Dad’s eyes. He knew us all as kids, and has not spend time with us all together in almost twenty years. We go for lunch together at the seaside as adults. I think he really enjoyed spending the day with us all. It was like twenty years hadn’t passed but I couldn’t stop thinking about how old we are now.

So much has changed recently. Life is almost unrecognisable. I feel like I am currently rebuilding my world anew. The world we share now is so markedly different to the one we grew up in. But still old faces remain; a love remains that will never falter.

I try to think about all that has changed, about how I have so often described myself as estranged from former lives, from childhood, from family. More recently, some of those connections have been rebuilt, tentatively, or have rather continued into a space that I thought, until recently, was barren. It is in my sense of renouncing that they endure regardless. The distance between us feels vast, but still an undeniable connection. I still feel on the outside of everything, but I am surprised every day by those who reach a hand out into this feeling of abyss.

It feels like life has started over. I live in a new city with a relatively new group of friends, and though I find myself spending a lot of my time with people I’d hardly say I knew well a few months ago — and in many cases, with people I categorically did not know at all — there are these strange hangovers of continuity that make time feel twisted. There is an acceptance from others that has been fostered over decades. I feel that same acceptance from some that has been fostered in just a few months.

In September, I am due to put the finishing touches on my next book. The feedback so far has been predictable for the first draft of something. The book does not quite fit together as it may have done in my mind, and with it having now been read by another, the response has been that the book either needs a bit less or a bit more. Some paths must either be curtailed or followed.

I was not sure how I re-enter the text at first. In talking to friends about it, I felt oddly like the thing had been written and was therefore done with. Though I knew there would be more work to do in submitting the manuscript, to offload it from my own private space of reflection left me with a feeling that I had cauterised the project in my mind. I was ready to move onto the next thing, despite the knowledge that the last thing was not yet completed.

This sense of cauterisation feels like a kind of renouncement. Life has changed remarkably since I first sent off the manuscript. But the breakdown I suffered in the aftermath, I am coming to realise, was a sort of misstep. A book about narcissism, about the decreation of the self, was superseded by a period of depression, a sorry fixation on the destruction of the self. Transformation gave way to nothingness; the process affirmed was renounced after being written about, but before it had been actualised for myself.

There is a fine line between destruction and decreation. I know too many who have written about the latter only to stumble into the former. Many of those I write about in the new book meet the same fate, despite themselves. I find the line and our stumbling over it described most eloquently by Anne Carson, in her essay on “decreation” in her collection of the same name. She writes on Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil. In Sappho she finds the narcissism of Narcissus, describing herself in a fragment of poetry that places her traumatically in accordance with nature:

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead — or almost
I seem to me.

Which is it? How close death and greenery seem to be. Ego-death is held precariously at a distance from real death, but the distance also seems so slight. She teeters on the end of “ekstasis, literally ‘standing outside oneself,’ a condition regarded by the Greeks as typical of mad persons, geniuses and loves, and ascribed to poets by Aristotle.” But what tethers one death to the other is a peculiar force in Carson’s assessment: it is love. Rather than clarifying the relationship between the two deaths, love itself is called into question. As Carson writes of the poet of Lesbos:

We see her senses empty themselves, we see her Being thrown outside its own centre where it stands observing her as if she were grass or dead. At which point a speculation occurs to me: granted this is a poem all about love, do we need to limit ourselves to a reading of it that is merely or conventionally erotic? […] Perhaps Sappho’s poem wants to teach us something about the metaphysics or even the theology of love. Perhaps she is posing not the usual lovesong complaint, Why don’t you love me? but a deeper spiritual question, What is it that love dares the self to do?

Carson believes Sappho’s answer to be one of decreating the self: “Love dares the self to leave itself behind, to enter into poverty.”

I have often thought that this way of loving was a malformation of emotional attachment. I have found that, in my own personal relationships, I have a tendency to give my all. I offer myself up to another person absolutely, placing my life in theirs. When love ends, it is not so much that I am heartbroken by another’s absence, but the absence of myself. I forget myself, I feel detached from my own inner resources, I fall back on a ground that is hard and barren. It feels like a death. The decreation of the self through love gives way to self-destruction when love evaporates.

I try to love differently, or not at all. I enter new relationships tentatively, holding myself back, but find that connections are missed or unsubstantiated. I linger in the background, holding onto some part of my self, turning to writing and my own thoughts like a life raft in turbulent waters, remaining at the surface, gliding over the superficial, never sinking in, only describing the view below that I float above.

This is fine too, of course. Best not to offer yourself up to someone so immediately in the euphoria, the ecstasy, the ekstasis of new affections. (This is, at least, the intent, even if affections can sometimes proceed otherwise.) Best to preserve something, to keep something in reserve. But beyond the trials of romance, how to engage with the world at large in such a way? It seems less sensible, less liberating, to hold something back in one’s love of the world. The joy of living is found in leaving oneself behind as the world washes over you. For the women considered by Carson, this is the only way to experience the grace of God. Marguerite Porete, for instance, “understands the essence of her human self to be in her free will and she decides that free will has been placed in her by God in order that she may give it back.” Love, religious ecstasy, is driven no less by the will’s desire “to depart from its own will and render itself back to God with nothing left over.”

For the surrealists writing at the same time as Weil, who are less concerned with God than other unknowable forces, particularly the psychoanalytic sense of the unconscious, will departs from will in much the same way. It is a kind of nihilism, through which, as Porete writes, the Soul “sees her nothingness by means of the abundance of divine understanding, which makes her nothing and places her in nothingness.” But this nothingness is not a place of despair. Carson writes that Porete “recognizes poverty as an amazing and inexpressible kind of repletion”; an “absolute emptiness which is also absolute fullness”, spoken “in erotic language”. To be all and nothing in gravity and grace.

Carson notes how this decentring and decreating is found not so much in a consenting relationship between two lovers but the consent given and discarded in a love triangle, the scorching of a lover’s jealousy, like the singed edges of old love letters burned when love is renounced at the height of an intensity betrayed.

For the jealous lover must balance two contradictory realities within her heart: on the one hand, that of herself at the centre of the universe and in command of her own will, offering love to her beloved; on the other, that of herself off the centre of the universe and in despite of her own will, watching her beloved love someone else. Naked collision of these two realities brings the lover to a sort of breakdown … whose effect is to expose her very Being to its own scrutiny and to dislodge it from the centre of itself. It would be a very high test of dialectical endurance to be able to, not just recognise, but consent to this breakdown.

I thought my own breakdown was unreasonable, I denied it as a silly affectation, a mistake, a symptom of a love given too freely and then discarded, triggering a cascade of traumatic reflections, a sense of abandonment felt after having been brought into this world, and the abandonment that is echoed when others, by their own free will or otherwise, have made their own exits.

I tell friends how I feel, how unreasonable I know I am being, fighting a war against feelings I do not want. I know I shouldn’t feel this way, I say, but I feel it all regardless. I become mad in the renouncement of something I cannot shake off. I find love left abandoned, like a corpse, an effigy of myself lain before me, distinct and disconnected if still somehow mine. I want to bury it. But friends affirm my feelings regardless. They say it is all so understandable. I feel I cannot dig a grave deep enough, but then realise I have misunderstood the task at hand. What is necessary is not a discarding of a gift unduly given, but its reintegration into the self, the decreation of something outside myself than must then be consumed and placed back within. The best remedy for a broken heart, they say, is to open your heart again. The wound must be reintegrated, transformed into a door that opens out again onto another world.

I retain a deep affection for my ex-girlfriend, who I spent ten years with. I think about how I have sought to publicly rebuild my life, document and affirm a life lived without her, narrating a new mode of existence. At times, this feels cruel. I hope she does not read it. But also, I remain in her debt and hope that no document of my continued existence is experienced as a kind of disavowal of our separation. On the contrary, I want to affirm how our separation was hard but it was tender. To think of it fills me with sadness, but not jealousy. That phrase always comes to mind — the celebrity euphemism of a divorce undertaken under the rubric of late-capitalist wellness: a “conscious uncoupling”. But that is what it was. It was tender, it was gentle. It was not the destruction of a life lived together but its willful decreation; the separation of one life into two that will always, nonetheless, retain a certain oneness. It was a process of getting out of each other’s way. Could this be described as a kind of “dialectical endurance”? It was certainly endured, but I feel all the better for it. It was felt so absolutely, but with so much space given to the processing of our feelings for each other, the processing of a love that did not go away but nonetheless could not continue. If only all renouncement was undertaken so gracefully.

Carson turns, finally, to Simone Weil. “‘To undo the creature in us’ is one of the ways she describes [her] aim.” It is necessary that one moves oneself out of the way to feel the grace of God’s love (or, indeed, love in general). In Weil, as with the others, we find a series of affectations that go far beyond those exchanges between individuals. “The erotic triangle Simone Weil constructs is one involving God, herself and the whole of creation”. Weil’s romantic analogy is at once tender but self-destructive. She writes:

I must withdraw so that God may make contact with the beings whom chance places in my path and whom he loves. It is tactless of me to be there. It is as though I were placed between two lovers or two friends. I am not the maiden who awaits her betrothed but the unwelcome third who is with two betrothed lovers and ought to go away so that they can really be together.

But what a thing to endure. I almost hear echoes of an eco-fascism, a sense that humanity is a third wheel caught between God and nature. But like Spinoza, she affirms their unity. It is a mistake to understand this will to decreation as a kind of self-destruction. To remove ourselves from such a union is not to die but to step aside. As Carson writes of Porete, “the people are not the problem here. Withness is the problem.” So Weil writes of a kind of disconnection necessary to exist alongside deus sive natura: “If only I could see a landscape as it is when I am not there. But when I am in any place I disturb the silence of heaven by the beating of my heart.”

Concluding her essay, Carson writes of the “inconsequentiality” of these three women, who writes themselves through the decentring of the “I”:

To be a writer is to construct a big, loud, shiny centre of self from which the writing is given voice and any claim to be intent on annihilating this self while still continuing to write and give voice to writing must involve the writer in some important acts of subterfuge or contradiction.

But contradiction is where worlds are created and decreated, simultaneously. “Contradiction alone is the proof that we are not everything”, Weil writers. “Nothing and something are two sides of one one coin”, Carson adds. Our estrangement from ourselves, from others, from the world, is precisely a making strange: to encounter something where there should be nothing; nothing where there should be something. Always, as Gertrude Stein writes, “there is no there there.” Decreation is not the transformation of something into nothing, but something and nothing existing simultaneously. We wonder what exists in between; for Carson, it is the writer and their writing: “to leave us in wonder is just what such a writer feels compelled to do.” This compulsion, she continues, is to be “moved to create a sort of dream of distance in which the self is displaced from the centre of the world and the teller disappears into the telling.” To write personally is to decreate one’s person; to render the personal productively impersonal.

I feel haunted by a line from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons: “A whole centre and a border make hanging a way of dressing.” The meanings between words are decreated but something about this phrase has been etched on my soul like a future epitaph.