The Unspeakably Familiar

Summer, 2006

The mail order package was sturdy and wrapped in custom parcel tape, with my name and address both writ large in india ink. For god’s sake what’s the shipping you’ve paid on that, my dad asked with a groan of disapproval, noticing the customs form attached and the multitude of stamps. In silent denial, I chose not to answer. It was certainly more than any sixteen-year-old could responsibly account for.

I slipped the package from his hands, still looking at the tape, water activated and alpine-themed. It too was adorned with a distinctive penmanship — more india ink. No more than an inch and a half thick, I was mesmerised by the unmistakable silhouettes of Douglas firs that lined its edges like a kanji forest. I said thanks and thanked the postman in turn, who was peering curiously around the door, waiting for a telling-off that never came. My dad absentmindedly closed the door behind him and in the postman’s face, forgetting his existence, his disgruntled eyes trained only on me. Tucking the package under my arm, I dashed upstairs to my room furtively before any further questions could be asked.

With my back to the door, grasping the new arrival tightly against my chest with one arm, I used the other to turn on my dad’s old hi-fi. I had inherited it — read: rescued it from abandonment in the loft — along with his record collection. It was positioned precariously behind the door — a terrible place for a record player, but there was no other space for it in my tiny room. It also functioned of a useful adolescent barrier — when there was music playing, you did not enter. My dad, respecting the sensitivity of a vinyl record, and all too aware that the records I played were once his own, seldom crossed the threshold.

Unfortunately, this inheritance, rather than sating a childhood desire to constantly listen to the Beatles, had instead inaugurated a bad habit: spending any and all money I had on records of my own. Taking a pair of dulled scissors from a crammed desk-tidy, I opened my new aquisition with glee, already knowing what was inside. If the customs forms were not enough, it was the parcel tape that had given it away. It was No Flashlight, an album by Phil Elverum, released the previous year under his (relatively) new moniker Mount Eerie.

Fifteen songs on a slab of pure white vinyl, the twelve-inch record was housed in a folded sleeve that, when unfurled, measured sixty by forty-two inches. Some said it was the largest album cover ever produced. On one side was a large drawing of Phil himself in the yawn of nature, made with heavy washes and expressive flourishes of yet more india ink. On the other side, a kind of exploded notebook, divided into half a dozen or so columns. Focusing on the notes, I laid the cover out flat on the floor of my bedroom as the needle dropped on “I Know No One”. This “giant explanation poster”, as it was called, covered all of the available floor space and it stayed there for the next six weeks of summer in 2006.

“Knowing no one will understand these songs / I try to sing them clearer”, Elverum sings. “I have tried to repeatedly explain / In complicated songs / But tonight we will find out / I know no one / And no one knows me”. As Elverum’s recordings filled the air over the following weeks, I poured over the lyrics and annotations and photographs and copious other notes that now carpeted the floor of my bedroom, attempting to prove him wrong. And yet, the closer I looked, the more aware I was that I could never know Elverum. In fact, I began to wonder to what extent Elverum could even know himself. The void turned reflexive. I don’t know myself either, I thought, with an adolescent profundity.

It soon became clear that this was not so much an album as a work of philosophy, although it was simultaneously an object that shirked all allusions to such grandeur. At the very least, “No Flashlight”, as an album title and as a mantra, articulated a worldview. It was a worldview that I felt was shared.

“Actually walking in the dark without a flashlight requires more sensitivity than we usually use”, Elverum writes in the liner notes of the song that gives the album its name. It is an album dedicated to the hairs that stand on the back of your neck as heightened animalistic senses take over in the dead of night — walking out into the night, “forgetting” your flashlight, and striding forth regardless, wide-eyed and afraid and thrilled to be there.

I knew what that was like. That was my favourite pastime. Stranded in suburbia, the outskirts of town were nonetheless within walking distance. Within five minutes, I was in fields, stumbling over refuse from the local quarry or skirting the edges of the M62. Within twenty minutes, I was on the banks of the River Humber, looking out at oil refineries and their UFO burn-offs as their chimneys faded into the black of the night. Elverum’s musings provided a lens through which to curate the circumstances of an eerie shuddering and see this otherwise mundane environment differently.

Vixen’s screams and the pitch black of night were abstractions hard to grasp back then. I really believed that something was lurking out there in the post-industrial wilderness, along the old railroads and quarry tracks. There was (something), as Elverum puts it, that “sings above the house”. But this was not simply a romancing of the night; in fact, the lesson Elverum made most clear was that we should get out of the romance. His was a kind of blackened psychedelia, finding the weirdness of real fear — an amygdalic realism — relishing the tricks the mind plays on itself and enjoying them like a magic show put on by the psyche.

No Flashlight, then, is an album about unbelief. It is an album of paradoxical perspectives. It is, as Elverum sings, about knowing the night from the perspective of the day; knowing the mountains from the perspective of the town; knowing a map of the land and the land in itself; seeing the moon reflected in a puddle of water and seeing the actual moon. It is speaking to that experience that fades away as soon as it is uttered or illuminated and being enchanted precisely with the impermanence of permeability and the enjoyment of unreason from a rational perspective. It is about the impossibility of no abstraction, of things in themselves, of nature and no nature. It is an album that straddles the strange relations and momentums and desires that entangle the world and the singer, and give form to the song of the world and the world in song. It is an album that revels in these contradictions and the confusion that follows them. It is a nest. It is one musician’s attempt to gather together enough references and sensations and coordinates to create a world inside this one. When passed through, this world changes how we might inhabit its nested neighbours.

That resonanted with me deeply. I, too, wanted to find another world inside this one.

Summer, 2020

I thought I might start my new life up north by writing a poem every day. I’d never done that before — write a poem — at least not seriously. In fact, previously, I might have told you, quite definitively, that I hate poetry. Not all poetry but certainly what passes for poetry these days – the sort of comment made by someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about but is at least somewhat aware of the fact that they don’t like how the kids are doing it.

That’s how I felt as a teenager, most certainly. An old girlfriend took me to a poetry night once, and then a few years spent around universities meant that I heard plenty more student offerings. I hated (and still do hate) the over-affected drawl of your average “slam” poem. The spoken word feels like it has been reduced to a cheap rollercoaster and I find myself struck more by a poem’s rhythm than its meaning. That’s all well and good if you’re listening to R&B but, as the same rhythm unfolds again and again in the mouth of poet after poet, I can think of nothing more irritating than that pretentious vocal tic, whereby the emphasising of irregular syllables into the perpetual echo of the same syncopated utterance constructs a rickety scaffolding suggestive of meaning where there often isn’t much of anything. Just a half-witty coinage and a mode of reading that wouldn’t be amiss on a night with your local amateur dramatics society.

I have evidently thought long and hard about why I don’t like poetry…

But then, one day in lockdown, newly intrigued by the modernists of the early twentieth century, I read some T.S. Eliot aloud to myself on a whim, having thought I might give this poetry thing another go. I was transported. I had previously heard it said that poetry is written to be read aloud but I thought that was a general rule, not one to be taken on so personally. Hearing that beautiful composition reverberate through my own bones in the solitude of a coronavirus quarantine was a revelation. I decided I liked poetry then and I wanted to read more of it.

Writing poetry is, of course, another matter.

If I have any sort of reputation as a writer, it is for quantity over quality. Writing (or rather, blogging), for me, is a method of organising thoughts as they fall out of my head. It is a compulsion. It is far from some considered exercise in self-control. This is to say that it is not a matter of great contemplation and reflection – that’s called “editing”. Writing (and blogging most of all) is, instead, a torrent you later sift for gold. Who said “write drunk, edit sober”? I have been guilty of following that adage a little too closely in the past. Two pints deep is a sweet spot for productivity but when you write as much and as often as I do, that rule starts to impact your waistline before you know it.

Poetry, then — what for? Brevity is an interesting notion at present; condensation and economy – the careful management of resources. It would be an interesting challenge to be careful with my words for once; to try and say more with less. My problem, if I have one, is that I am often neurotically chasing long-winded truths. Writing comes easy because so does extrapolation, joining the dots, unfolding an argument, rambling, ranting, following the twists and turns of a thought and building a labyrinth of independent and borrowed knowledges, then providing the Ariadnean thread out of my own maze. I’ve long been aware that this is an unpopular way of working in fields adjacent to Continental philosophy and, particularly, the Ccru — where philosophy and poetry are often silent bedfellows — but this confession is not necessarily an admission of didacticism either. It is a habit picked up from Elverum, who would make the world’s biggest album cover to avoid the travesty of miscomprehension. In this way, it was Elverum who taught me that clarity can dazzle and confound just like opacity can, if done well.

Elverum has reneged on this tendency to over-explain, however. No amount of writing has allowed him to shrug off the suggestion made constantly in the music press that he sings about nature (rather than “no nature”). Embracing the futility of explanation, he has come into his own as a poet as much as he is a songwriter.

I don’t think that’s me though… To attempt poetry, and to try and become disciplined within its constraints, is an unnatural thought. It would, however, be a healthy exercise in letting go of this compulsion — to over-share and over-write. Or perhaps it would be a healthy way of diverting the aphoristic energy usually expended on Twitter.

It is surely no secret at this point that I’m struggling at the moment with the internet. Complaining a little too often about the succession of creeps I have encountered on social media in recent weeks, my friend Natasha recommended Juliet Jacques’ Trans: A Memoir. True enough, I found the way her relationship with social media develops over the course of the book to be so relatable. At first, she writes about how “social media keeps me sane, providing contact with friends, family and well-wishers at any time, saving dozens of energy-sapping conversations.” She reflects on the initial joys of Twitter too: “finding new books, films, art and writers, doing years’ worth of ‘networking’ in six months, making friends in London and feeling part of so many conversations, even sensing that old power structures were being challenged by those traditionally excluded.”

Later, however, she reflects on the fallout of the “trans wars” and the Guardian‘s now well-established propensity to suck when it comes to trans rights and representation. With the column that served as the basis for her book having been published there, the feeling of having to pick a side as an old friend and colleague outs themselves as a bigot is perhaps more of a conundrum than it would have been otherwise. She is almost too exhausted to take much of a stand. Instead, she just left Twitter.

“I’d thought my exhaustion and exasperation with Twitter would fade, and that I’d regain enthusiasm for the connections it offered”, she writes. “I didn’t: having confessed so much … I had nothing more to give.” Eventually, finding herself looking at her phone and “disdainfully going through the cavalcade of people’s actions and opinions, it suddenly felt like a radical gesture to just watch the films I’d rented and not broadcast about them.” In the end, she concludes: “Withdrawing from social media, especially Twitter with its bitter arguments, has helped. I think it’s terrible for writing.”

Reading this was just what I needed. It was reassuring, as I really do feel much the same way. I have a lot left to say and plenty to share but I think I am done with sharing myself, at least in the ways that Twitter — and, indeed, London — demands. Maybe poetry could be the right kind of hobby after all. An exercise in doing something for myself. (If I do start experimenting with poems, I don’t intend to share any. Can you imagine the horror?)

Whatever I end up doing, I know I want to do something different; that makes me act differently. The idea of some new project like a notebook of personal poems excites me because, in my mind, the first of October — when we will hopefully be settled in Brontë country — designates a line in the sand that I am preparing myself to leap far over. I’m not really sure what new life awaits on the other side but I’d like it to be different to whatever this London life has been. I’ve lived here for four years at this point and my life is completely unrecognisable to what it was before I got here. In 2016, I had no direction and no future and no prospects. I wasn’t even writing. I’d barely read any philosophy, at least not with any seriousness. I have been transformed, but into what? And by what? The hours and hours spent tapping away now feel like hours and hours spent holding onto the debris from some wreckage. I’d like to let go of it. I’d like leaving this city to be the beginning of some new relation. Less wreckage, more driftwood.

I think part of the renewed interest in poetry and lifestyle shifts may come from my persistent thinking about Phil Elverum’s latest project — his return to the Microphones in 2020 and his long reflection on what it means to release an album under that name again now. It has dragged me back to my own teenage years and the strange but shared realisation that, despite everything being so very particular and different now, I’m still interested in the same things I was when I first heard Mount Eerie. This is perhaps the knock-on effect of musical nostalgia — Elverum’s consideration of his trajectory as a band has made me consider my own trajectory as a listener, and the experiences that he has often soundtracked at various intervals.

I do distinctly remember a time when I went off his music entirely — I wasn’t much of a fan of Wind’s Poem or Ocean Roar but considered Clear Moon to be the best thing he’d done. Still, I cooled on him a lot for some unknown reason. It was a time when I found myself reacting against all my old ’00s idols. Regretfully, I sold a few of my rarer records by him, only to reconnect with his music again a few years later when Sauna heralded a really magnificent return to form. Everything that followed Sauna felt like music from a different (and no less brilliant) entity. It is interesting to see that “other” Elverum, pre-greif, is now returning tentatively to the fore.

Considering all these twists and turns of his life, his career, the time of the Microphones is another country. It is strange to think, in retrospect, that his most notable studio albums under that moniker cover only four years of output — from 1999 to 2003. I’m sure, like most, whilst the mythology of Elverum’s music from that time casts a long shadow, I never knew him before he was Mount Eerie. And so, in listening to The Microphones in 2020, I find myself thinking about that moment of transition. Because that is, after all, what The Microphones in 2020 seems to point to. It is not just an album about the Microphones but why Elverum is now Mount Eerie and if he still should be. In this sense, it is a nostalgic project that also begs the question of what comes next. It is clear that something has got to give. With the Mount Eerie project becoming so subsumed in a grief that he’s already discussed a gradual slide out of, what is it for the “Mount Eerie” project to now be so closely associated in the critical imagination with that moment of personal trauma? What is in a name anyway? Does his art warrant another name change now that so much seems different? Is The Microphones in 2020 not a kind of self-reassurance that, no matter what changes, the line of flight remains the same? From the vantage point of this strange templexity, does the work he’s produced since 2017 really constitute that much of a shift from what came before, despite how life-changing that year was circumstantially?

I’ve been thinking about this kind of transition a lot as we prepare to exit London. I’m left wanting to completely reorient my relationship to the world in response. Over the last few months, every day that goes by seems to be defined by the further entrenchment of a path inaugurated only as an attempt to leave it.

I wrote Egress as an exploration of and as a product of grief; I called it Egress because I hoped writing it and publishing it — and therefore relinquishing ownership of it — might allow me to let it all go. (This has happened but not without an unanticipated amount of difficulty.) That I began writing the book the same year Elverum released A Crow Looked At Me is a coincidence but one which I cherished after first hearing that release. Getting Postcapitalist Desire out into the world this month is a step into different and perhaps more positive territory, where I can emphasise a more impersonal relationship to the work rather than to the man. A further project I’ve been working on in lockdown remains related to Fisher only tangentially, moving out even further to consider more of the blogosphere as a whole. It feels like the beginning of my own Powers of Ten, produced bookwise. A slow process just begun but, on a personal level, perhaps a sensible one. There’s no rush, I tell myself. I mustn’t rush. After Egress came out, I felt like I might get the bends.

Watching and listening to how Elverum has undertaken his own shift in this regard has been an inspiring lead to follow — not only in coming to terms with the uncomfortable realisation that a horrible event can crystallise a thought you have long been preoccupied by, but also that there is a way back to a previously impersonal perspective, no longer behold to the details of a particular life or death.

Isn’t that the meaning of the Mount Eerie name, after all? An impersonal vector through which Phil Elverum the man can feel his size?

Although Elverum claims no one has asked what “Mount Eerie” means, the frequent deference he pays to Gary Synder in the liner notes to that first album suggests he has been trying to tell people for some time. Synder remains an interesting vantage point from which to view Elverum’s project in 2020 also.

Gary Synder’s first book on poems, for instance, featured a number of tributes to and translations of Han-shan, the Chinese poet from the T’ang dynasty known in English as “Cold Mountain”. As Synder explains, when Han-shan “talks about Cold Mountain he means himself, his home, his state of mind.”

Once at Cold Mountain, troubles cease —
No more tangled, hung-up mind.
I idly scribble poems on the rock cliff,
Taking whatever comes, like a drifting boat.

It’s a beautiful sentiment and one I’m left wanting to emphasise for myself, although I’m not sure I could get away with rebranding as “River Humber”. Still, the return back north feels like a chance to reconnect to old lives and loves lost over the last few years. The basic change in circumstance of having less of a stark divide between the woods and the city feels profound enough, but not as a way to “get back to nature”. In normalising its presence in our lives once again, I’m looking forward to getting out of its romance.

Elverum remains a guide, in this regard. More recently, he has begun referencing Joanne Kyger in his songs and on his record covers — a hugely accomplished poet in her own right who was, nonetheless, for a brief time in the 1960s, Gary Synder’s wife. (She passed away in 2017 also.) Returning to the sentiment of his old track “Log in the Waves”, on his 2018 album Lost Wisdom Pt. 2, Elverum sings again of “Enduring the Waves”, capturing an honest and uncomfortable sentiment that has haunted this goth blogger for much of the last decade. He sings, accompanied by Julie Doiron:

When I was younger and didn’t know
I used to walk around basically begging the sky
For some calamity to challenge my foundation
When I was young
So imagine what it was like to watch up close a loved one die
And then look into the pit
I lived on the edge of it
And had to stay there
Joanne Kyger said:

We fight incredibly through a hideous mish mash of inheritance
Forgiving for deeper stamina
That we go on
The world always goes on
Breaking us with its changes
Until our form, exhausted, runs true

We might read in this the birth of a new self for Elverum, taking all that has happened to him and finally running true, but is this not the same sentiment that was always behind the “Mount Eerie” name? Is this not Elverum returning to his own “Cold Mountain”? A mountain he has never left? Walking back in the front door to find himself all together, in one big empty house?

The coronavirus pandemic casts a long shadow over these vague suggestions of an egress from grief, and the fact that we are moving into a very high risk area (after London has somehow bizarrely avoided a second wave), complicates things further still.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the collective grief of our present moment — a grief that can barely be dealt with. The sentiment behind Egress lingers even though the specifics of that moment feel like a lifetime ago. I keep wondering if there are echoes of the interwar period here — as if those from a previous generation might recognise that big black cloud that hovers over us now, after a loss of life so large we cannot process it and so we shuffled on, sometimes breaking habits and often looking for new scenery, contrary to a nationalist sentiment from the government that insists somewhat pathetically on a return to business as usual.

In the 1920s, it is worth noting that the trauma of the war didn’t lead to a mass return to the countryside, as is being reported as happening now. The interwar years were instead defined by many people moving to the cities. This is perhaps because, prior to the Blitz, England’s cities were not yet sites of trauma. It was the countryside, instead, that was tainted. It’s peace had been disturbed, mutated by memories of battlefields and the bodies upon them, as if every English plain now contained the ghosts of the Somme. In his book The Lark Ascending, Richard King comments on the literary impact of this shift in the national consciousness. He quotes from Siegfried Sassoon’s anonymously written novel Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, for instance, writing how:

George Sherston, the narrator and titular fox-hunter, recalls riding before the war when ‘The air was Elysian with early summer and the shadows of steep white clouds were chasing over the orchards and meadows; sunlight sparkled on green hedgerows that had been drenched by early morning showers … For it was my own countryside, and I loved it with an intimate feeling, though all its associations were crude and incoherent. I cannot think of it now without a sense of heartache, as if it contained something which I have never quite been able to discover.’ The ‘something’, which George was unable to discover, lay buried within the landscape of his memory. Sassoon’s use of the word ‘discover’, rather than recover or rediscover is notable; it suggests a source of impenetrable emotional energy made all the more overwhelming by his inability to locate it, an inability he is carrying as if it were a wound from the battlefield.

As we, along with many other friends, choose to vacate the city, I wonder if the inverse is taking place. Now it is the city that feels tainted but this needn’t be a reactionary about face. The same line of flight might apply…

I’ve been thinking about this line of flight whilst reading D.H. Lawrence’s 1922 novel Aaron’s Rod, but I’ll save those musings for another post…

To be continued…

Dream Meridian (Remastered)

I recently shared a version of this photograph that I’ve had floating around various hard drives since 2008. It was taken by my dad somewhere along the old Hull and Barnsley Railroad and I have always found it to be the most magical picture, capturing some dream vision of my adolescence.

Much like last time, this post is just an excuse to share a newer version of this same photograph. I emailed my Dad the other day and, on a whim, asked if he still had the original negative in his possession because I’d love to have a higher quality scan of it. Twelve years on, and never having had much use for it, I was amazed to hear that he did.

“Blimey, that is an old photo and didn’t think I would find it but I have”, he said. “I have the negative and a 7 x 5 print. The boots envelope it is in says I got them printed 29/01/2008!”

It’s quite amazing how pristine this old section of the railway looks here. Supposedly unused by trains since 1969, it was long abandoned when we used to explore it in the late 2000s, but it seems that it has only started to look the part more recently. I found this video, for instance, that gives a really nice history of the railway and there is a photo of this same bridge, now entangled in all sorts of vines, at around the 28-second mark.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about our explorations of the countryside back then. All of my recent posts about the sights and sounds of the Pacific North West, alongside the release of the new Microphones album, have sent me down a bit of a memory hole and I’ve started thinking quite hard about what it was about Elverum’s music, so rooted in his own backyard, that made me engage in new ways with my own.

I am now convinced that there is a kind of cosmic connection here, between far-flung cultures, obviously ancestrally related, that nonetheless retain this kind of unspoken dialogue.

At that time I was so obsessed with his photo/album release, Mount Eerie Pts. 6 & 7, which I’d someone been able to afford (but probably not really), and I reckon I saw my own version of Elverum’s environment in this valley down the Yorkshire Wolds, a short drive from the family home. I used to fantasise a lot back then about making some sort of art project that was to my Atlantic North East as Mount Eerie was to the Pacific North West. I never did, but this photo of me taken by my dad became a talisman for the space the idea occupied in my head.

I feel really inspired at the moment about the prospect of picking this project back up as an adult, some 12/13 years later. I’ll be picking away at this in the background for the time being, but expect the odd snippet thrown onto the blog here and there.

Shout out, Dad. Expect to see this photo maybe adorning merch or a book cover one day. If I’d had a one-man metal band aged seventeen, it would have definitely ended up on there. I’ll find something worthy of it eventually.

Sidenote: Earlier today I was thinking about that mix that Grouper made for FACTmag where she does a blend of Jandek’s “Nancy Sings” and Anne Briggs’ “Thorneymoor Woods” — a truly inspired one-two. I think the exchange of atmosphere that results from these tracks bleeding into each other is precisely what I want to shine a light on with this project… A good thing to aim for.

No Nature, Not Ever

I’ve been thinking a lot about this Gary Snyder quotation recently and how it has been bastardised to become some generic caption for an inspirational poster in your dentist’s waiting room.

In every instance it is shared online — search “Gary Synder” on Twitter and 75% of tweets are replicating this line and anchoring it down with hashtags — it seems to invert its own logic by setting up a false dichotomy. It seems to beg the question: If nature is home, where are we now? But, for Snyder, often somewhat controversially, it is instead the case that nature is home and your home is nature; i.e. nature is the place I live, no matter where that is.

It is this immanent and Zen-like view of nature that allows Synder, as poet laureate of the Pacific North West, to encapsulate the veil we’ve discussed repeatedly in recent weeks, between subject and void, nature and society. His poems take form as he picks holes in the thin paper that separates planes.

I wonder if his collection No Nature is a response to this bastardisation of his poems. What is it for one of America’s foremost “nature” poets to declare there is no nature? It’s a kind of punk contrarianism. Sometimes there’s nothing more fun than shouting “no fun, not ever.” Similarly, for Synder, true nature is revealed when we declare there is no nature. Synder’s is a kind of poetic postnaturalism in this regard.

Snyder’s poem “In the Santa Clarita Valley” is often chosen as being most representative of this turn.

Like skinny wildweed flowers sticking up
hexagonal “Denny’s” sign
starry “Carl’s”
loopy “McDonald’s”
eight-petaled yellow “Shell”
blue-and-white “Mobil” with a big red “O”

growing in the asphalt riparian zone
by the soft roar of the flow
of Interstate 5.

His later poems have often entertained a post-natural view of the world in which the flows of human life and capital become riparian zones of their own; invisible rivers, no less natural than the ones we already know.

For Synder — like D.H. Lawrence before him — alienation is not caused by capitalism in and of itself; not any longer. Alienation is not the sight of a McDonald’s sign but our othering of it. The false dichotomy of nature and society, which we think we make for nature’s benefit, only others ourselves from its flows. Capitalism, as shapeshifting current, does as much to plug us back into the nature that we distinguish ourselves from (ideologically) than it does to destroy it (materially). This is to say that capital is precisely the vector that drives our interventions in our own environment. Nature and society’s modes of productivity mirror each other. What we require more than anything is not a new moralising incision between the two but a way to think both together in a new relation. Mountains and websites.

All this reminds me of that moment, late last year, when a proper push was made to give voice to an ecologically-minded accelerationism. But what use is ecology to accelerationism, really? It doesn’t mean accelerationism cannot inform a thinking about our environment but environment and ecology are subtly different things. Synder himself makes the point when he is asked in an interview about the poetic distinction between the two terms, in relation to his poem above:

Look at the words. “Environment” means the surroundings. The surroundings can include an oil refinery, can include all of Los Angeles and the I-5 strip. That’s the environment too, whatever surrounds us. … Everything surrounds everything else. … What is “ecological”? Etymologically, the “household of nature” is what’s being called up. “Ecological” refers to the systems of biological nature, which include energy, and mineral and chemical transformations and pathways. “The environment” is used more commonly to also include human and technological productions. And it’s not an absolute, hard and fast separation. …

Such is the problem of accelerationism more generally. It’s speciation is often productive but only if we understand this process within a grander scheme of things. Mutations are welcome but when we make them distinct from the world in which they are acting, which accelerationism (without conditions) has always spoken to, then we fall into that all too human tunnel vision. It slots accelerationism into a more general trend within the humanities, claiming itself necessary because we can no longer see the trees for the commodity that is wood. It asks: How can we protect nature from Acceleration? In the process, it abjures one of accelerationism’s central observations (going back to the geophilosophy of the Ccru and Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia and even the solar economy of Georges Bataille): Acceleration is natural.

The challenge of accelerationism was always to complicate our understanding of a world-for-us and a world-without-us in this regard. “What are things-in-themselves?” is one philosophical starting point. “What is the world-without-us?” is another, slotting itself into a present confluence of speculative fictions and hypotheticals that are increasingly defining how we see our own futures. “What is capital-without-us?” is the speculative-realist juncture that first birthed an accelerationist thinking.

It is time that complicates and stitches together all of these perspectives. An environmental accelerationism is no different; always included in the Ccru’s accelerationist musings and explored through their preoccupation with geotrauma. In this sense, there is no nature; only time. You do not rectify this outlook by focusing on nature but by opening up time. As Snyder puts it, we require an “openness not just for the human community but for the natural community; it’s for our immediate neighborhood of all the other species, all of us passing through time.”

“Meet Me Behind the Mall”: Notes on the Heavenly Storekeeper and His Stock

In the afternoon he sat in the compound breaking ore samples with a hammer, the feldspar rich in red oxide of copper and native nuggets in whose organic lobations he purported to read news of the earth’s origins, holding an extemporary lecture in geology to a small gathering who nodded and spat. A few would quote scripture to confound his ordering up of eons out of the ancient chaos and other apostate supposings. The judge smiled.

Books lie, he said.

God dont lie.

No, said the judge. He does not. And these are his words.

He held up a chunk of rock.

He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things.

— Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

Speaking previously about Taylor Swift’s inadvertent fall into black metal imagery, and the veil between inside and out that she seems to be walking like a tightrope, I decided to take a closer look at her lyrics and was surprised to find little mention of nature whatsoever.

The album does well to evoke a dreamy, folk(loric) landscape and it does speak occasionally of woods and coastlines, but Swift is far more concerned with products and things than the natural world. Hers in a material world. Nevertheless, she only seems fascinated with these things only because of the halo they carry with them. She holds her decadent possessions aloft and interrogates them in order to glimpse some something else that lurks behind them. The recurring line from “August” — “Meet me behind the mall” — echoes throughout the album in the way. What is behind the mall? A parking lot most likely, but in Swift’s dreamscape it seems like the scope of her song is far bigger than that.

Behind the mall is the world.

In much US Black Metal, this tension is reversed. In their sonic realms of fantasy and horror, these musicians proclaim they have destroyed the mall and speak of it no longer. They are back in the world, even if a little bleary-eyed and awestruck. It is a return to nature-in-itself that, according to DH Lawrence, the American mind has long been dissuaded from engaging with.

Lawrence spends the first analytic chapter proper of his Studies in American Literature by ridiculing Benjamin Franklin (who he admires but does not like). Franklin speaks so eloquently of God and Providence as to almost collapse one onto the other and begin to see God in his own capitalistic activities. Whilst God — for someone like Schelling most explicitly — is certainly to be found in “productivity”, for Lawrence Franklin’s prostituting of a natural extropy, transforming it into a Godly Providence, is nothing short of a pitiful fallacy. He writes:

Now if Mr Andrew Carnegie, or any other millionaire, had wished to invent a God to suit his ends, he could not have done better. Benjamin did it for him in the eighteenth century. God is the supreme servant of men who want to get on, to produce. Providence. The provider. The heavenly storekeeper. The everlasting Wanamaker.”

For Lawrence, the soul of man is a dark forest; not Franklin’s English country garden, all topiary and cabbages patches ready for market. “The soul of man is a dark vast forest, with wild life in it”, he writes. “Think of Benjamin fencing it off!”

And yet, this fencing off is not without its consequences. For a nomadic Englishman like Lawrence (what a paradox), trying to find his way through the dark night of the American soul, Franklin’s obstacles are most treacherous.

“Here am I now in tatters and scratched to ribbons, sitting in the middle of Benjamin’s America looking at the barbed wire, and the fat sheep crawling under the fence to get fat outside, and the watch-dogs yelling at the gate lest by chance anyone should get out by the proper exit.” So is the feeling of reaching the landscape depicted on Swift’s album cover via the vectors of her songs. Yearning for a life beyond quarantine, just as she is, we have to make it through the fire exits in a labyrinthine mall of Swift’s own making.

Lawrence’s dictums, contra Franklin, speak to a kind of Lovecraft country. But he has little time for the evangelism of the Cthulhu cult, and far less still for an intellectual’s morbid curiosity with an external otherness. He offers up the following six rules for life:

‘That I am I.’

‘That my soul is a dark forest.’

‘That my known self will never be more than a little clearing in the forest.’

‘That gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest into the clearing of my known self, and then go back.’

‘That I must have the courage to let them come and go.’

‘That I will never let mankind put anything over me, but that I will try always to recognize and submit to the gods in me and the gods in other men and women.’

For Lawrence, the great challenge of the American psyche, in its relationship with nature, is to let these gods come and go. Indeed, isn’t this folklore? The oral tradition of narrating this kind of divine passing-through? Lawrence seems to think so, although Franklin has bastardised it beyond all recognition.

Through the lens of his great American moralism, Franklin’s racism comes to epitomise a national paradox: a racialised, fearful love of otherness. Lawrence references Franklin’s encounter with a tribe of rum-loving Indians, for instance. Franklin declares, “if it be the design of Providence to extirpate these savages in order to make room for the cultivators of the earth, it seems not improbable that rum may be the appointed means.” But the land is, of course, already cultivated. For Lawrence, the new American’s joy at growing “potatoes and Chicagoes” is far less impressive than the longevity of its First Nation’s history. And yet, Lawrence does not go so far as to idolise or fetishize the first Americans. He simply acknowledges the truth that the colonists cannot see, although they will spend the next few hundred years grasping at it. He writes:

You can idealize or intellectualize. Or, on the contrary, you can let the dark soul in you see for itself. An artist usually intellectualizes on top, and his dark under-consciousness goes on contradicting him beneath. This is almost laughably the case with most American artists.

Could this cynicism be vindicated any clearer than it is on Swift’s folklore? She successfully captures an essence, but it always lurks in the background, as an all too recognisable Americana lingers on the surface like a thin layer of scum. Perhaps because Swift’s temper has been altered for good. She is not a figure breaking free from the back of the mall but a gun-totin’ hunter, stalking the edges of a dark forest that fascinates her and makes her afraid.

When Lawrence later moves onto the writings of J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, he points to de Crèvecœur’s similar understanding of the woods. Wood-adjacent Americans are of another sort, he says, and it resonates surprisingly well with the world of celebrity in which Swift moves. “Look what you made me do”, she snarls at the trees, taking potshots at owls and paparazzi. This is what has changed her.

‘I must tell you,’ he says, ‘that there is something in the proxomity of the woods which is very singular. It is with men as it is with the plants and animals that grow and live in the forests; they are entirely different from those that live in the plains. I will candidly tell you all my thoughts, but you are not to expect that I shall advance any reasons. By living in or near the woods, their actions are regulated by the wildness of their neighbourhood. The deer often come to eat their grain, the wolves to destroy their sheep, the bears to kill their hogs, the foxes to catch their poultry. This surrounding hostility immediately puts the gun into their hands; they watch these animals, they kill some; and thus by defending their property they soon become professed hunters; this is the progress; once hunters, farewell to the plough. The chase renders them ferocious, gloomy, and unsociable; a hunter wants no neighbour, he rather hates them, because he dreads the competition. … Eating of wild meat, whatever you may think, tends to alter their temper. …’

Interestingly, de Crèvecœur’s future would take a similar turn to Swift’s. Having lived out in the wilderness and written his stories of a farmer’s hardships, he returns to his native France a hero; a survivor. He leaves his wife and child for the luxury and comfort of Parisian literary circles. He wanted a taste but not the life, too enamoured by his old decadence. Lawrence, in his appraisal of the bougie Frenchman, once again pulls no punches:

For the animals and savages are isolate, each one in its own pristine self. The animal lifts its head, sniffs, and knows within the dark, passionate belly. It knows at once, in dark mindlessness. […]

Crèvecœur wanted this kind of knowledge. But comfortably, in his head, along with his other ideas and ideals. He didn’t go too near the wigwam. Because he must have suspected that the moment he saw as the savages saw, all his fraternity and equality would go up in smoke, and his ideal world of pure sweet goodness along with it. And still worse than this, he would have to give up his own will, which insists that the world is so, because it would be nicest if it were so. Therefore he trotted back to France in high-heeled shoes, and imagined America in Paris.

For Lawrence, this is America’s great influence on the husk from which it grew out of. Because, although America may fetishize its struggles, white Americans had known decadence for a very long time. In fact, Lawrence goes so far as to claim that “European decadence was anticipated in America; and American influence passed over to Europe, was assimilated there, and then returned to this land of innocence as something purplish in its modernity and a little wicked. So absurd things are.”

This feedback loop, like all others in postmodernity, gathers itself ever tighter. Taylor Swift epitomises it. Her hankering after a Gatsby life of American modernism is reduced to a facile glamour that is, at once, uniquely American but made exotic with its faint whiff of European aristocracy. The lesson becomes that bit more clear: There is little opportunity to separate American and European today, so fatally enamoured we are (whether culturally or politically) with each other’s ideals and each other’s natures, but that dream meridian that joins us from afar continues to seduce us.

What lies behind the mall?

Two Men in Love with IT

Yesterday’s post was written, like most, on the fly. I was intrigued to learn, after a little more digging, that Stephen King is openly a big fan of D.H. Lawrence, having mentioned him in a few interviews.

Suddenly King’s dramatising of Lawrence’s “IT” doesn’t seem like a moment of literary serendipity — but of course it isn’t. King’s fingers have long been on the pulse of the American psyche. He feels its rhythms more deeply than his reputation for pulp suggests, and it is precisely his reputation for pulp horror that tells us this.

The same is true of Lawrence too, of course; his reputation for smut proceeds him. And yet people are still surprised that his surgical dissections of the national unconscious still ring true.

Intriguingly, King came to Lawrence’s posthumous defence in 2005, following Francine Prose’s very bizarre review of John Worthen’s incredible Lawrence biography for The New York Times. (For what it’s worth, I read Worthen’s book at the end of last year and found his unpacking of his life to be incredible, despite the fact my exploration of Lawrence’s works is still only just beginning.)

Prose says she doesn’t really get Lawrence, but she knows how well regarded he is, and so she’s optimistic that she might discover something new to like in this biography. Unfortunately, she doesn’t get beyond the cliches. Not for lack of trying, she seems to say, but then whether the fault is hers or Worthen’s is unclear. Either way, King does not take kindly to her middling book report. He writes:

To the Editor:

The problem with Francine Prose’s review of D. H. Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider (Dec. 4) isn’t that she came to Lawrence through a book (Lady Chatterley’s Lover) she glommed from her Dad’s sock drawer, or that she seems not to have renewed her acquaintance with Lawrence’s work since her undergraduate days; the problem is her not uncommon assumption that she may be better able to understand a great writer by reading about him than by reading him.

A critical examination of Lawrence’s work makes it possible to understand that by saying explicitly what Thomas Hardy only implied in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure — that marriage is the heart of modern society, and sex is the heart of marriage — Lawrence novels such as The Rainbow (published long before Lady Chatterley) were almost certain to be suppressed. But that is a dry bone indeed, and antithetical to everything for which Lawrence lived. It was feeling he cared for, and the heart at which he aimed, not the loins that attracted Prose’s attention as a teenager.

I suspect Lawrence would have clutched his head at the idea of anyone turning to biography as a way of finding “new ways of understanding” his work. Prose might have done better to glance at one of Lawrence’s poems — also titled “The Rainbow,” and probably not coincidentally. It closes with these radiant lines:

But the one thing that is bow-legged
and can’t put its feet together
is the rainbow.
Because one foot is the heart of a man
and the other is the heart of a woman.
And these two, as you know,
never meet.
Save they leap
high —
Oh hearts, leap high!
— they touch in mid-heaven like an acrobat
and make a rainbow.

The writer’s rainbow is always found in his work, and students seeking gold would thus do well to start there.

It is an intriguing turn of events. Lawrence, as both author and critic, had defended the role of the latter in his poetically critical work on American literature:

The artist usually sets out — or used to — to point a moral and adorn a tale. The tale, however, points the other way, as a rule. Two blankly opposing morals, the artist’s and the tale’s. Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.

Now we know our business in these studies; saving the American tale from the American artist.

It is precisely in dissecting “the American tale” that Lawrence’s uncovers IT. King’s novel IT is an intriguing response to Lawrence’s symptomatology. Indeed, with all this in mind, IT, particularly at its most “purple”, feels quite explicitly Lawrencean. Or, alternatively, it reads like a tribute to Poe via Lawrence’s reading of him.

Poe is interesting for Lawrence because he abjures the Other that so many other novelists — James Fenimore Cooper in particular — rely on to interrogate the national unconscious. There are no overtly racialised forces here (although Lovecraft, of course, brings them back); for Lawrence,

Poe has no truck with Indians or Nature. He makes no bones about Red Brothers and Wigwams.

He is absolutely concerned with the disintegration-processes of his own psyche. As we have said, the rhythm of American art-activity is dual.

(1) A disintegrating and sloughing of the old consciousness.

(2) The forming of a new consciousness underneath.

The entire chapter is surreal in the present context. It reads like a dissection of IT out of time… I could go through and pull quotes left, right and centre. But I won’t.

Lawrence proclaims to know the American intimately, because he knows that he himself represents what the emigrant European hoped to get away from. In remaining anchored to that point of egress and following the American out into the desert — he spent most of 1922 in New Mexico — he felt he had a perspective on their nation that the New Americans had forgotten. He was the phantom of old consciousness coming back to haunt the frontier, and yet he was also on the frontier of a new European consciousness himself, that has reflected on modernity and transformed itself anew.

King seems to take Lawrence’s insights in this regard very seriously, dramatising the latest phase of the horror (which I’ve discussed previously), the latest twist in America’s dialectical consciousness. Considering all the work he has done in this regard, it is little wonder that, for King, almost a century after Lawrence’s initial diagnosis, Prose’s extension of a national amnesia cannot be tolerated.

Dream Meridian II: The Irish Connection

To add another thread to the fraying tapestry, I wonder if anyone has any recommendations regarding the Irish-American imagination? I don’t mean how Americans love to draw on their Irish heritage — St. Paddy’s Day parades and all that — but rather how Ireland is influenced by its American cousins.

This is a vague thought that similarly emerged from that ol’ folk revival in the mid- to late 2000s. Fionn Regan comes to mind, and his intriguingly named 2006 album The End of History. I’ll readily admit that “Put a Penny in the Slot” was what turned me onto both Paul Auster and Saul Bellow when I was in my late teens, and they’ve both cropped up on this blog occasionally (linked). I’ve never found anything that pulled on this string that resonated with me though…

Answers on postcards please.

Dream Meridian

Yesterday’s post has sent me into a fit. The line drawn from that mid-2000s folk revival to the weirdness of Taylor Swift in 2020 has suddenly connected a great many dots in my head and I have been writing feverishly all night.

A vague book idea that I have been throwing ideas at over the last few months, initially called Frontier Psychiatry, has a new focus. It has become increasingly apparent that this Yorkshireman who doesn’t know America at all beyond a screen or page can hardly be expected to write a half decent book on the West simply for the sheer love of it. It has also become increasingly apparent that many of the books I could write, given enough time to research it, have already been written.

But I am intrigued by this notion that slipped out of my fingers whilst writing yesterday’s post: the dream meridian. Is there a longitudinal psychedelia that connects British surrealism to the Lynchian Pacific Northwest? I’ve always felt so. In fact, spending the evening revisiting Mount Eerie’s 2005 album No Flashlight, I’ve been struck by that odd sensation of familiarity again. The themes explored on that album, which fascinated me as a teenager so intensely, feel only a stone’s throw from a book like Justin Barton’s Hidden Valleys.

Perhaps they’re just universal themes but, considering just how cemented in place the Mount Eerie project is, I think there is something more to it than that… Chatting to @bummertimebc after yesterday’s post went live, we spoke a bit about this affinity after they shared their amazing album Wastelayer, a Mark Fisher-referencing slab of “dirge punk” recorded in Elverum’s Anacortes base, The Unknown. These worlds colliding has sent me west.

And so, I was up all night thinking about No Flashlight and Hidden Valleys, these two explorations of two very different northern territories that nonetheless share a sensation (if not quite a concept) of lucidity. Elverum’s summary of the album is also prescient in this regard. It resonates with Barton’s eerie Spinozism beautifully. For instance, towards the end of the album’s copious liner notes, he writes:

There’s another world inside this one, and the only way to get it is to be generous and not afraid of the dark / the void. This “other world” only exists as an absence, yet it is overflowing and beautiful. Also, all of these words and merely pointing at it, not saying it.

Participate in everything with indifference in your heart.

Fifteen years after first receiving this album in the mail from Anacortes, WA, I now feel like I have spent all that time since reading philosophy and literature to come back to it and say, ah yes, I see you now, through the void. I see it just as I saw it then, but now I feel like I can talk to it, having come full circle.

That’s a journey I’d like to write up, ricocheting around my Western obsession, and with far more clarity than these recent rambling posts have dared entertain. What has this American frontierism taught this Yorkshireman about how to see the world at night? That feels like a book that only I could write, and that’s always an inspiring feeling.

We’ll see how that goes…

The main reason for writing this post, despite appearances, was not to prematurely announce a new (mutation to an already existing) project. I mainly wanted to share the photograph up top. It was taken by my Dad in the summer of 2006, at the height of my teenage Mount Eerie obsession, somewhere along an old train track that used to be part of the Hull and Barnsley railway. It felt like a portal to that other world I was spending so much time in — sonically at least.

It was a surreal place; or is. (I’m fairly certain it is still there but it has been years since I’ve seen it with my own eyes.) It is nothing more then a tunnel mouth and a railway bridge, buried in a valley out in the East Yorkshire countryside. It’s more or less invisible until you’re on top of it. I used to go out there at every opportunity, scrambling around with friends on the weekends. I took so many photographs here over the years but none came close to this one. I’d quite like to find a new life for it, somehow…

As I was looking for this photograph, I also found a few others relevant to yesterday’s meandering nostalgia trip, including photographs I took of Bon Iver at the aforementioned gig at the Leadmill in Sheffield (right) and also Atlas Sound at the Brudenell in Leeds just a few weeks later (left).

(I wish musicians still blogged like Bradford Cox did — there’s a lot to be said for the musical blogosphere of that period too. Even Radiohead got in on it. Remember that?)

After the End of the Myth: On American Interiors and the Rotten Western

My previous post on Taylor Swift was long and meandering — a sign that I had something to say that I couldn’t get out in a single (succinct) argument. This is going to be long and meandering too, but in a way that I hope fills in the gaps between recent postings.

Essentially, what I want to do here is connection my Taylor Swift post to my The Last of Us Part 2 posts via Ed Berger’s recent Western posts… And of course it was Ed Berger who was able to clarify my Swiftian concerns better than I was able to at the time.

I must admit that, whilst I was unashamedly in love with Taylor Swift’s folklore at the time of writing that last post, writing it has also tempered my own feelings considerably. If it’s a post that comes across as torn, that’s probably why.

Discussing this with my girlfriend the next day she feigned surprise: “You mean thinking a little deeper about Taylor Swift’s life and output left a bitter taste in your mouth?” I suppose that’s part of the point I wanted to make, although I mistakenly made it in the midst of the process rather than after my thoughts had settled on it.

To summarise: Swift’s music is often beautiful but it is is also superficially seductive (but seductive nonetheless); beneath the supposedly innocuous pop surface is a load of ideological distastefulness. This isn’t a new realisation, of course. The overarching point is that having this realisation doesn’t solve anything — I still like her music — so dismissing Swift outright doesn’t achieve anything. What is interesting about trying to traverse to strange complexity of her output, as Jillian Mapes did for Pitchfork, is that accounting for her aesthetic prowess and ideological clumsiness simultaneously requires something of an diagonal critique that initially feels like catching her own cognitive dissonance and making it your own.

Point being: critiques of capitalism require the same kind of mental gymnastics. How can we productively account for the seductive qualities of that which we find distasteful on paper? Coming down hard on either side of the pop seduction / capitalistic distastefulness divide does nothing to help us account for the relation between the two that keeps us where we are. Talking about capitalism in this way is quite difficult, especially in brief. Talking about Taylor Swift is (supposedly) much easier.

But why is it so difficult? What is this strange space between seduction and critique? Is there a better way to talk about it? I think it might be useful to place Swift in a much broader, acutely American context.

Ed Berger’s comment on my Taylor Swift post was very helpful in this regard. He picked up on the fact I called Swift’s new music “Lynchian”, for instance — the Sunset Boulevard references were similarly made to emphasise this — “with its play of a surreal, normalized surface and hidden, decadent depths being the motif that links the tracks together.”

Ed also pointed to the fact that the third season of Twin Peaks played with this tension explicitly. The season’s frequent featuring of dream pop acts — not to mention the casting of Sky Ferreira — were certainly at the back of my mind in the last post too, but Ed really drives this point home. He writes the following of Swift’s latest album:

… from the Hollywood-in-decline vibes that crop up repeatedly to the broader (career-spanning) trend of artificialized Americana … some of the tracks … tap into the synthy dream-pop that brings to my mind Twin Peaks. I have no idea if this is intentional or not, or is born from a mutual interest in the genre on the part of both Lynch and Swift (the obvious mutual admiration of Lana del Rey by both parties also folds neatly as another point in this).

The third season of TP has been on my mind a lot lately, in particular the use of a variety of dream/synth pop tracks throughout the musical codas that ended each episode. I recall some critics saying that the modernization of Twin Peaks (both in terms of the reboot but also the literal modernization of the in-universe town) caused it to lose a bit of surrealist edge (surreal in this sense being the strange anachronistic time-character of the locale). But the use of dream pop, and the accompanying fashion sense used — and maybe even the color template of certain scenes — still seemed anachronistic to me. For a show released in 2017, it looked as if it was set in cultural climate of 2010 through roughly 2014 — which in my mind was really an extension of the cultural formations that you note as emerging within the context of the Recession years. Perhaps this is reading into something that is not there, but it seems very deliberate to me.

Across the whole span, my perception of popular ‘indie’ culture pivoted around the twin poles of the folk revival and the dream/synth pop moment. The question of Twin Peak’s third season aside, this is (as you point out) the basic template for Folklore. The name deliberately invokes ‘folk’, and the whole neo-Americana aesthetic harkens back to this constantly. At the same time, the music tilts between this form and the synthetic… I’m curious as to why. Is it a simply case of repetition in the face of similar, yet different, traumatic events? Or is it an indication of how narrow the distance between present-nostalgia and its vanished object has become? Or something deeper still?

I think Ed makes some really excellent points here and it chimes with a certain atmosphere that I find so seductive about the American northwest. His mention of the folk revival too is interesting. Swift’s album most explicitly brings to mind The National’s album Boxer — particularly its melancholic postwestern themes — but that, in turn, places it in a very diverse context in my mind.

This popular melancholy over the loss of the twentieth century post-9/11 was coupled by a new American weird. Whilst The National, Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver rose to the top in the mid- to late 2000s, something else came up from below that was much more psychedelic if nonetheless still captured by the same structures of feeling. (It’s worth noting that the National’s Aaron Dressner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon both appear on Taylor Swift’s folklore.)

Story time: I was at one of Bon Iver’s very first UK gigs at the Leadmill in Sheffield in 2008. The band was supporting Iron & Wine. It’s not often I’ve bought a ticket to gig for the supporting act rather than the headliner but it was a good decision in that case. That first Bon Iver album, before the Tumblr hype went some way towards neutering it, with all its questionable mythology, was similarly seductive to me. As a live act — then a new and somewhat awkward trio — they nonetheless torn the floor out from underneath Iron & Wine, whose set consisted of little more than awful dive bar alt-country noodling to my ears.

Bon Iver embodied a shift in the American folk pop sound at that time — a sound that seemed to embrace this new scattered aesthetic of an unravelling frontier mythology after the traumatic birth of the twenty-first century.

I often think about For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver’s debut album, of which Justin Vernon once said that the titular “Emma” was not a person but “a place you get stuck in”. Intriguingly, Vernon later named many songs after places or states, but in such a disparate and inconsistent way as to provide listeners with a wholly dishevelled cartography. Sufjan Stevens’ abandoned 50 states project this was not; Vernon seemed to be keen, from then on, to only pass through these disparate locations. The resulting map was nostalgic, in one sense, but nonetheless hallucinated, in another.

Whilst Bon Iver might be the most pop embodiment as this upturned cartography, it was similarly explored by some of the weirder acts of the new American folk scene. The droning folk numbers of Animal Collective for instance, particularly under their Campfire Songs moniker, made for that fluid sense of movement across the American plains; a song like “Visiting Friends” from the album Sung Tongs similarly travels through a heat-fucked haze.

Looking back over all the critically-acclaimed albums that were released around this time, it was undeniably an incredibly productive period for a certain subcultures. A “folk revival” is right, but even the outliers of this moment, that crossed in front of that Pitchfork-driven trajectory of alt-folk, dealt with many of the same themes.

Scott Walker’s The Drift; Akron/Family’s self-titled; Liars’ Drum’s Not Dead; Sun Kil Moon’s Tiny Cities; Mount Eerie’s Dawn; Atlas Sound’s Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel — those are just some of the albums that went into this mid-00s tapestry, often reaching far beyond the US, that seemed to be attempting to fill an anachronistic gap between (but also beyond) Slint’s Spiderland and the long shadow of the Incredible String Band, conflating counterculture weirdness with a postmodern melancholy.

Around the same time, Grouper released Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill — an album on which we find the American subject truly at sea with itself.

The song “Living Room” — recorded around the same time as Dragging… but released a few years later on the album The Man Who Died With His Boat — captures this tension beautifully and even more explicitly. Here Liz Harris navigates that gap, as described by Ed, between a present-nostalgia and a vanished object. She sings:

I’m looking for the place the spirit meets the skin
Can’t figure out why that place feels so hard to be in
We’re all of us at this ill-fitting party
Busy pretending to relate
And it’s getting harder and harder to fake
Acting like everything’s in its place

If we might return to 2020, it is this sensation of a thin but nonetheless oblique veil between present-nostalgia and vanished object, keeping us apart from each other and the world around us, that may be making something of a comeback if Taylor-Swift-as-pop-vector is to be affirmed.

It is worth noting that Swift’s album being described as “alternative” is not quite the superficial marketing appendage it first appears to me. “Alternative” is doing a lot of heavy lifting here, but it always has done. To call something so unashamedly pop “alternative” probably says something about our postmodern moment in itself, but I think it is worth affirming for its nonsensical slippage between “pop”-as-pulp and pop-as-“popular” sounds. Swift is, in this sense — aesthetically at least — crossing a line that is connecting her sound to a whole new set of themes. Whereas she had previously done this with country music, she is now drawing on themes so far flung as to make for plenty of memes.

This is why the album cover for Swift’s folklore, particularly in its black metal meme version, is so excellent. The mess of associations brought to mind by that cover alone — of Swift standing in the woods in a long houndstooth coat — has led to many people laughing about it being “accidentally” black metal, but is it not instead the case that these environs epitomise the Northern frontier in the popular imagination? Is it not that this album’s whole aesthetic mess brings to mind associations that the “alternative” scenes of the mid-00s — from the folk revival to USBM to indie rock to electronica — similarly tried to contend with?

Less vaguely, I suppose this is to say that it’s not that woods are, by default, “metal” but rather that metal is often, despite how it sounds, very pop in its concerns. (Are you going to tell me that nature isn’t both pulp and popular? I’m a big fan of the Craghopper Goth aesthetic personally — if that’s not a thing yet, I am determined to make it one.) Of course, there are plenty of people who like to put forward particular visions of nature contrary to this, emphasising the extent to which nature is obscured in the modern imagination — I’m thinking of the embarrassing rightists on Twitter who love to talk about the onanism of social media before going out for a wank in the woods — but the truth is far less reactionary and dichotomous, and I think that Taylor Swift’s album, for better and worse, demonstrates how lacking in clarity these distinctions really are.

I’m reminded of that poem by W.H. Auden here:

The trees encountered on a country stroll
Reveal a lot about a country’s soul.


A culture is no better than its woods.

The issue, however, is that black metal — like Swift on folklore — often fails to see the wood for the trees. Unless you’re a true Scandi misanthrope, chances are your favourite metal band’s musings about nature are nonetheless passed through the frame of (post)modernity, even if the movement made in response is one of negation. A band like Wolves in the Throne Room are well-known for acknowledging this tension between nature / society productively, rather than just doing the default one-with-nature, society-can-go-to-hell black metal mode. Mount Eerie is another band that really excels at this.

Is it any coincidence they’re both from Twin Peaks country; from Olympia, WA.?

I’ve never been the Washington State (or British Columbia) but, having grown up (more or less) along the same longitudinal line, I find cultural depictions of that part of the world to be really affecting; they always resonate with me in a profound way. But the particular dynamics present in that part of the world also affirm a certain kind of psychogeographic relation that is lost here in the UK.

For instance, whilst most will reduce the regional disparities in this country to being issues of socioeconomic difference and inequality, an increased class consciousness of more recent years that attempts to affirm the more magickal associations that come with a maligned yr hen ogledd often lacks a more nuanced cultural understanding of why this is presently so seductive. I think this is because, in the UK, we don’t really know how to think about frontiers (in Jack D. Forbes’ sense of “an intergroup [or interethnic] contact situation .. where one culture identity front[s] another.”) The US gives form to, crosses over and attempts to close frontiers in this sense all the time, especially in its media, and they don’t all look like cowboys versus indians.

For a superficial but interestingly pop example, we might talk about the Twilight series which plays on the same associations attached to the Pacific northwest. Twin Peaks, however, is interesting because its frontierism is far more productively collaborative than other more explicit cultural examples. This is true throughout the series entire run, regardless of its twenty-first century updates. We might think about how, for instance, the US / Canada border in the show has long functioned as the dream meridian to the US / Mexico border’s blood meridian. (Yes, Twin Peaks is also an Acid Western, folks.)

I don’t think Twin Peaks invented this understanding of the Pacific northwest, but it certainly bottled it in a way that resonated far beyond its immediate locale. For an alternative example, I’d offer up Phil Elverum’s Mount Eerie project. Whilst explicitly inspired by Twin Peaks, Elverum has regularly extrapolated outwards to find the reality behind the Lynchian fantasy. Nowhere is this more more explicit than on the song “Through the Trees Pt. 2” (embedded above), which wrestles openly with the twenty-first century’s disarticulation of nature and society (or, more specifically, nature and the web). As Elverum sings:

The ‘natural world’
And whatever else it’s called
I drive in and out of town
Seeing no edge, breathing sky

And it’s hard to describe
Without seeming absurd
I know there’s no other world:
Mountains and websites.

Elverum acknowledges the reality that few reactionaries are prepared to: the inside is a folding of the outside. When we think about American frontierism, this statement becomes truer by the day.

The strange experience of being very online and then escaping out into nature should not be seen as some dysfunctional disarticulation between modes of existence but a new frontier to navigate, a new “contact situation.” This is to say that a life lived online and a life lived in the mountains can be as alienating as each other, but I think to live both simultaneously is oddly beautiful.

The philosophical challenges of accounting for this tension are, at present, very engaging and there is plenty for us to draw on to better articulate this alt-pop continuum that Taylor Swift has most recently wandered into.

For example, a few months ago, I read Greg Grandin’s book The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. It is a great book but one which tempts fate with its title, and one which I think oversimplifies the dynamic at play in the present. By focusing entirely on the political or historical evidence — it is undeniably an incredibly in-depth examination of how America’s political imagination could go from the actual frontier to JFK’s “New Frontier” to Trump suddenly wanting to build a wall — Grandin nonetheless ignores the cultural shifts that have presaged Trump’s wall bid, and so half the story is lost.

In this corner of the internet, it is Deleuze and Guattari who we have repeatedly turned to to explore this philosophically. Ed recently wrote about this DeleuzoGuattarian view of the Old West (and the New West) on his blog, discussing that now famous footnote (to Cave Twitter at least) in the rhizome chapter of A Thousand Plateaus that was hugely important for kickstarting the blogosphere’s 2018 patchwork posting. (My posting on this topic later became the “Unconsciousness Raising” chapter of my book Egress.)

Here, D&G point to the literary critic (whomst I love) Leslie Fielder and his book The Return of the Vanishing American. They describe how Fiedler diagrams the West’s strange tendency, despite being so named, to change direction. The West, they note, in the American imagination, has always “played the role of the line of flight combining travel, hallucination, madness, the Indians, perceptive and mental experimentation, the shifting of frontiers, the rhizome.” They also note that the West triggers a kind of reciprocal contradiction in this sense. The opening of the frontier establishes a new kind of Orientalism in the American mind — America puts its Orient (its East) in the West, they argue.

This dynamic is still at play today. Although the frontier has long been closed (politically at least; I’d argue not imaginatively) this tendency to reverse directions has continued. We should be clear that East becoming West, for Deleuze and Guattari, is certainly not some racialised rewording of the Turner thesis. What is evidenced by placing this footnote within the wider context of the book is that East / West enter a new process of permeation. This process did not stop when the frontier was closed. In fact, within American literature, this multi-dimensional folding has continued apace.

Deleuze observes this for himself in his essay “Bartleby; or, the Formula” from Essays Critical and Clinical. Herman Melville’s obstinate clerk, in saying “I would prefer not to”, cracks open a linguistic frontier — an intersubjective contact situation that abjures “yes” and “no”, allowing him to exist in “an ever expanding zone of indiscernability or indetermination”. (A kind of zone that I like to think the more psychedelic musicians within the folk revival summoned sonically, as on a song like Animal Collective’s “Visiting Friends”.) And yet, “I would prefer not to” is nonetheless an aggramatical construction; its own kind of communicative border wall — a Great Wall that figures both a narrowing of the territory and an endless expanse in its own right. And so, Deleuze continues, Bartleby’s formula “excludes all alternatives, and devours what it claims to converse no less than it distances itself from everything else.” A productive paradox emerges. This unruly phrase bars those who would implore Bartleby to act from being able to penetrate his interiority, and yet the cunning nature of his grammatical madness alludes to an interiority so vast as to be incomprehensible. This unseen vastness “proliferate[s] around him and contaminate[s] the others, sending [them] fleeing.” But it also sends “language itself into flight”, into “a zone of indetermination or indiscernability in which neither words not characters can be distinguished”.

This zone, this linguistic West, is what concerns Deleuze — and no surprises there: A Thousand Plateaus similarly ties its geophilosophy to linguistics. In this sense, it is always best observed as a relation — between planet and thought but also, at least within the literature of Herman Melville, between Bartleby and the attorney or, alternatively, between Ahab and his whale. Whilst this perspective suggests that we begin with a pristine dichotomy, this dichotomy soon finds itself obscured by communication and inter-action. This is even true in the first-person, never mind the third-person. For instance, in Moby Dick, Ishmael’s narration is so exquisitely detailed as to present us with this great interiority that is both irreverent and cultured, intimate and distancing. But Ishmael cannot seem to fully comprehend the nature of the relation beyond him. His rationality, in all its majesty, struggles to rationalise Ahab and his whale. It is in this sense that Moby Dick is a truly modern novel, presenting us with a subjective interiority that is mapped in magnificent detail but which struggles to provide an adequate cartography of the world outside. Many “Great American Novels” dramatise this tension, in their own way.

But just as Deleuze described how this tension “devours what it claims to converse”, the Great American Novel today has smoothed the way for the New West’s border wall. Take, for instance, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian — what I’d give to hear Deleuze’s thoughts on that one.

Many have written about how Blood Meridian subverts the drama of Moby Dick. Whereas the latter presents us with a protagonist whose interiority has a seemingly infinite depth, the former gives us a nameless character flat as an adobe wall. Here the vast indifference of the West is mirrored in the close subject of The Kid. Whilst the novel is arguably no less epic in scope, we see another America here. But McCarthy’s book is hardly a negation of Melville’s, it rather reflects another stage in the process. It traces the rebound of Melville’s transcendental prose. In this sense, McCarthy’s book present us with a vast outside that is not tamed by a charming interiority; interiority is as barren as the world outside itself.

But McCarthy himself does not signal an end. We might argue that pendulum is once against swinging back in the other direction. Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, for instance, presents us with another vast interiority but one where the exterior is all the more obscured. It is an American epic that is nothing but monologue. It inverts the austerity of McCarthy’s American.

And so, it is clear that America is still constantly devouring that which it claims to converse. Even when you would assume the psyche has had its fill, it continues to devour the screen memories left in its place.

Ed has written on this tension recently as well, unpacking a passage from Deleuze and Guattari’s “How Do You Make Yourself a Body Without Organs?”, in which the figure of a priest — a strange priest no doubt, perhaps not unlike Clint Eastwood’s Preacher in Pale Rider — attempts to navigate certain directions of the compass. They write:

The priest did not turn to the west. He knew that in the west lay a plane of consistency, but he thought that the way was blocked by the columns of Hercules, that it led nowhere and uninhabited by people. But that is where desire was lurking, west was the shortest route east, as well to the other directions, rediscovered or deterritorialized.

Discussing this strange reference to “the columbs of Hercules”, Ed writes:

The more immediate reference that Deleuze and Guattari are likely to be reaching for is the use of the columns of Hercules as a symbol used by Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason. In the discussion on transcendental logic, Kant described the ‘pillars of Hercules’ inscribed with the words nihil ulterius, ‘nothing beyond’: it is beyond this point that critique is not to venture. The pillars themselves were “erected by nature in order that we pursue reason’s voyages only insofar as the steadily continuing coasts of experience extend”. The Atlantean promise, following a Renaissance legend of the pillars, is inverted by Kant through this stark warning. If beyond the pillars, in the west, lay the plane of consistency, then Kant has fulfilled the function of priest who turns his back to this direction.

Nick Land similarly wrote once that transcendental philosophy is, in this respect, a fear of the sea — but it is also, we might argue, a fear of the unconscious.

Clearly no one told Herman Melville this.

This has led me to wonder about what exactly Deleuze sees in Melville, and likewise in the West, and what has often been culturally betrayed in more recent decades (although, literarily, it obviously still persists). It seems that, for Deleuze, the West is a great folding. Not an unfolding, but a folding.

Deleuze’s sense of folding challenges our conception of the frontier as a great and seemingly infinite expanse. When Star Trek (and JFK) take up the same metaphor of the endless frontier, this understanding was made all too literal. By transposing the frontier to the literal infinitude of space, they flatten out the folds of the American West proper, privileging a void “out there” in the indifference of space to be navigated by institutionalised imperatives and a para-militaristic federation rather than attempting to wrestle with the void that permeates both nature and society right here with and without us.

This is to say that the infinitude of space is not just a final but an unending frontier, and impotently so. The West, by contrast, and quite strangely, has a coast line. It has an inside, even when it was understood to be an outside. But when we speak of the West and its various directions — the peculiar dynamics that flow out north, south, east and west — we nonetheless find a great recursion. The earth as a body without organ(isation) does not have an north, south, east and west — the map is truly globular; east and west eventually meet and dissolve into one another. The globe folds directionality. The cosmic expanse outwards is, in this sense, an illusion. What the West really epitomises is a vast interiority, as found in Melville’s writings — and the inside is a folding of the outside. 

It is this strange folding that I have been trying to tease out of my recent playthrough of The Last of Us Part 2 (and what is to follow has been clipped from my draft of the third part of that series that I’ve called “The Rotten Western”.)

In part two of my “Rotten Western” series, I hoped to shine a light on the ways in which this tension has been explored through a uniquely American “corpse bride”, where living and dead, past and future, become fatally entwined into a newly putrescent “present-nostalgia” (as Ed put it). Not a haunting, as such, but something all too material. And yet, as the game pushes on, it is clear that the story hopes to break out of this loop absolutely — and it struggles to do so.

When I last wrote about this game, I mentioned Joel’s house, presented the player as a kind of Old West museum, but this atemporal paradox becomes even clearer in a dream that Ellie has later on in the game.

At the end of their first day searching Seattle, an exhausted Ellie and Dina hole up in a theatre. After Ellie makes sure the building is secure, she nods off in the front aisle of the main auditorium. The Freudian overtones are strong here — as she sleeps in the cinema, we play through one of her screen memories.

And of course the first flashback of The Last of Us Part 2 takes place in a museum… Museums are important in post-apocalyptic games, as I’ve discussed before — and somewhat strangely too, as if they are there to dramatise the industry’s own internal problems.

It is Ellie’s birthday and Joel has taken her to the ruins of the Wyoming Museum of Science and History. Joel’s strange relationship to American history is on full display here once again; it is quite endearing how all of his (woefully inaccurate) knowledge about dinosaurs comes from his memories of the first two Jurassic Park films, for instance. Indeed, after mistaking one species of dinosaur for a velociraptor, when Ellie eventually finds the (surprisingly tiny) skull of a real one, Joel makes a note to self: “Don’t trust the movies, I guess.”

Here we are, navigating literal screen memories within literal screen memories, and it is not long before history starts to eat itself. The wretched museum becomes a kind of Conan Doyle plateau — a lost world where humanity is confronted by memories of other extinctions, affirming its capacity for survival whilst also giving their visit an oddly spectral affair. What are survivors cut off from society and from history? Joel and Ellie feel like ghosts wandering through time old of joint.

Just as previously discussed, we once again find Joel’s memories of the past holding him back here. The museum becomes as an exaggerated version of his own home — a space given over to a more cosmic but nonetheless distorted perspective on the past. Perhaps this perspective is ultimately Joel’s undoing — history repeats, the past haunts, the killing of futures leads to his murder in his own. But Joel still continues to carry himself like he knows and has seen it all. When contrasted with Ellie’s curiosity and openness to the new, however, Joel’s bumbling knowledge of natural history is evidently not that natural at all.

This is no country for old men like Joel. He seems barely capable of bridging the gap between old and new. Somewhat hearteningly, Ellie is as fascinated by the lost world of the dinosaurs as she is by the lost world of late capitalism. She’s close to a true nomad, with little to hold onto but plenty to gain. Joel’s existence is the inverse of this. When she forgets this, it is nearly the death of her.

I think it is worth noting that the game’s championing of LGBTQ+ politics does seem to be making an interesting point here. Whilst many have been (excessively) angered by the extent to which the game emphasises contemporary political issues within the context of a zombie apocalypse — Ellie is gay, Dina is bisexual, Abby is straight but gender non-conforming, Lev is trans — the centring of these experiences does start to feel a little forced in the grand scheme of things. But it also makes perfect sense that these characters, who epitomise many of the talking points of contemporary identity politics, would find the space to do so in a “postwestern” like this. Stuart Hall once argued that the “post-” prefix is our way of articulating “a shift or transition conceptualised as the reconfiguration of the field“, and the “postwestern” has reconfigured aplenty. Westerns are, after all, all about the shifting of cultural boundaries (even, or especially, when they are at their most reactionary).

At its best, The Last of Us Part 2 might even suggest a new (pop) swing back in the direction of the Melvillian. Whereas McCarthy’s 2006 book The Road, for instance — notably published at the height of that New West alt-folk revival discussed earlier — continues to erase interiority in the direction of the “post-” (as an example of both post-western and post-apocalyptic literature), The Last of Us Part 2 attempts — emphasis on “attempts” — to ground its narrative in the interiority of its various characters. Unfortunately, the “zones of indiscernability” that result are repeatedly ruptured by the way the game forces you to betray its own categorical imperative. “I’d prefer you not to kill”, it declares, whilst forcing you to do it anyway. (Or, in other words, what Polygon said.)

If there is hope for what Neil Campbell has called a “postwestern politics”, this interjection of “alternative counterfictions to challenge any authoratitive distribution of the sensible with regard to the American West” must be allowed to play out, rather than being betrayed, as in The Last of Us Part 2, by a hall of mirrors; counterfictions countering counterfictions.

The Last of Us Part 2 is at its strongest right before it descends into this moment, and this excursion to the museum is a case in point.

Joel and Ellie’s wander through the museum soon pivots — quite abruptly — from dinosaurs to the space race, but not without first passing through the thin veil of extinction. They pass an overgrown wall, echoing the cordyceps’ global takeover, and then move through a dark tunnel and suddenly we have skipped over a few millions years of history to arrive at that technological arms race that used to define our sense of the future. The time jump is disorientating. Time spirals accelerate. The museum echoes the world as we know it now — that is, within the game. Dinosaur exhibits mirror abandoned mannequins and window displays in shopping malls, but Ellie is still capable of having fun in this odd facsimile of a lost future.

The tension is interesting. Whilst Joel wanders around a world he has lost, Ellie finds herself in a world that beckons her own interventions. That was then; this is now. I’m reminded here of a marvellous passage from Judith Butler on mourning which resonates with The Last of Us Part 2 completely. She writes:

Places are lost — destroyed, vacated, barred — but then there is some place new, and it is not the first, never can be the first. And so there is an impossibility housed at the site of this new place. What is new, newness itself, is founded upon the loss of original place, and so it is a newness that has within it a sense of belatedness, of coming after, and of being thus fundamentally determined by a past that continues to inform it. And so this past is not actually past in the sense of “over,” since it continues as an animating absence in the presence, one that makes itself known precisely in and through the survival of anachronism itself.

The excursion in the museum doesn’t quite end in this new space, however. Much like the rest of the game, it is a plot that attacks its own productive anachronism, contradicting itself in ways that are wholly unnecessary. The future is unfolding all around us at an alarming rate but the hand of god reaches down to pull useless triggers.

It’s strange, really, that The Last of Us Part 2 goes so hard on its abject nihilism. All you can do is kill, it tells you, and killing gets you nowhere. But this is a game that is also set in the Pacific northwest — specifically in Seattle? It has confused its dream meridian for a blood meridian. Perhaps we have too.

The sheer boundless horror of a McCarthy novel creates a tension with the region’s imagination, and perhaps this too contrasts with the current calm of our present pandemic. The Last of Us Part 2 is not a lockdown game in the way that Taylor Swift’s folklore is clearly a lockdown album, but as both Ed and I have vaguely pondered, perhaps this return to a mid-00s dream pop nostalgia is to be welcomed — if not from Swift herself, at least as a kind of pop vector that allows us to consider anew this strange world of mountains and websites. The tension is covered over as soon as capitalism restarts its engines. It may not be a new tension but it is at least an unresolved one, and we have been making good on unresolved tensions as of late. (Black Lives Matter remains a potent example.)

When Fiedler wrote of “the return of the vanishing American” he was writing about the native American specifically — a subject who disappeared in the figure of “the Indian” but returned anew as the native American to haunt the American psyche that had, for so long, othered it into a hauntological existence. Right now it feels like another kind of vanishing American is making a return — the late 2000s subject that looked upon the financial crash and struggled to imagine what new worlds were possible. Whilst it seemed like we were incapable of hallucinating the new at that time, at least in a countercultural mode that we were previously familiar with, it seems to me that our rampant melancholy can nonetheless give rise to strange visions. A post-apocalyptic or dream pop northwest share much in common.

I think this is worth noting when we talk about “acid” futures. When Jonathan Rosenbaum first coined the term “acid western” for the Chicago Reader, he was talking about Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man.

It is certainly halluncinatory but Rosenbaum tends to ignore the fact that it is also explicitly purgatorial. I think it is worth noting that the psychedelic has a strong association with death in this regard. We regularly talk of near-death experiences and visions and the surreality of continuing to live beyond that which has passed (away). This is the central premise of hauntology — as horrifying as it often is, it is a kind of goth psychedelia (something most Mark Fisher fans tend not to get). The acid western, the dead western, the rotten western are all cousins in this regard. They are all grounded upon varying degrees of melancholy. The melancholy doesn’t end but we might push it into a newly imaginative mode.

This is a point that I similarly find within Fielder’s The Return of the Vanishing American. That which is returning is returning from the edge of reason, the end of death. It is a subject that — again, to borrow some phrasing from Fiedler — has gotten bored of “waiting for the end”. THe vanishing American is that American given space to return once all the old white man have died. It is the second book in Fiedler’s trilogy — Waiting for the End — that takes these men in its sights.

Those old men who prophesied their own ends in the Sixties and Seventies are long dead, he notes, but their call for a people-to-come remains unanswered. Whilst Deleuze and Guattari are evasive in their labelling of the last men, Fielder is clear. An American tradition that was born with Walt Whitman died with Allen Ginsberg, and necessarily so. What comes next is less white and self-destructive. He writes:

It is, in any case, the dark side of Leaves of Grass that Ginsberg reflects or, more properly exposes, presenting himself as the apostle not of self-adulation but of self-pity, not of joy but of terror, not of sanity but of insanity. Whitman liked to boast that he drank nothing but pure water; Ginsberg tells us he smokes marijuana. Whitman saw himself as a kind of mystical healer; Ginsberg celebrates himself as an angel of death and derangement. He is a prophet not of the beginnings of man, but of his end; and if, like Whitman, he tries to write first poems, they are the first poems of the next evolutionary stage beyond us, anticipations of the verse of meta-humans.

In this sense, the post-Westerner is waiting for an end that will never come. As they bring about a cultural apocalypse of their own, they lay the ground for what is to come. The Beats perhaps failed to realise this. Much like those glamorous figures admired by Swift, they had a marvellous time ruining everything. In the end, they appeared pathetic in their impotence, but we have (and must continue to) move on anew.

This optimism is not present in the conclusion of Fiedler’s Waiting for the End. He senses trouble ahead.

Our writers will learn to bear the indignities of success, as they have born those of failure; and out of these, too, with luck and skill, they will make the stuff of art. What new apocalypse they will dream as they work, we cannot imagine; and if we know that, whatever its nature, it will fail them, like all the others, that is a truth we had best keep to ourselves. In any event, no one younger than we will listen; but it does not matter, for there is no end.

Thinking back to a time before lockdown, I feel Fielder’s mournful resolve. And yet, having overcome the unconvincing brutality of The Last of Us Part 2, having been seduced and then repulsed by folklore, and having been utterly inspired to gob off 7000 words, thanks to Ed Berger, as my girlfriend and I spend the evening talking about an increasingly likely plan to escape London for the North, Fiedler’s conclusion to The Return of the Vanishing American feels far more appropriate.

If a myth of America is to exist in the future, it is incumbent on our writers, no matter how square and scared they may be in their deepest hearts, to conduct with the mad just such a dialogue as their predecessors learned long ago to conduct with the aboriginal dwellers in the actual Western Wilderness. It is easy to forget, but essential to remember, that the shadowy creatures living scarcely imaginable lives in the forest of Virginia once seemed as threatening to all that good Europeans believed as the acid-head or the borderline schizophrenic on the Lower East Side now seems to all that good Americans have come to believe in its place.

To speak of schizophrenics is to speak of a vast multiplicity within and without. America knows this tension well but continues to fear both, whether at its borders or in its inner cities. The pendulum is clearly swinging back the other way, towards a vast interiority, where monolithic subjects face off against a monstrous border wall, but this is not an end; there is no end to the frontier. It is all just another fold in a map that has long been tearing along its creases. These tears need not be destruction for destruction’s sake. They are an opportunity for a new American cartography.

To acknowledge Swift as a part of that landscape might be uncomfortable for some — she’s a Mount Rushmore in an American wilderness — but she’s useful as a coordinate via which we can situate ourselves; The Last of Us Part 2 and Wolves in the Throne Room and Twin Peaks and Mount Eerie and whatever else are (perhaps “cooler”) others but they serve the same purpose. We should look for ways to pass between the lot of them.