Monday, September 26, 2011

After Work



All of the Terminator films except for the third one have their climactic scene set inside of a factory. That is the place where the killer robots (pardon: cybernetic organisms) are crushed or melted down or obliterated in a thermonuclear explosion. But factories are also where the Terminators are forged. These golems of the post-industrial age are born in factories just as humans – and especially first-world humans – are locked out of them, laid off, made redundant, outsourced, terminated. And so, albeit on a crude, literal level, the Terminator films are also stories about the de-industrialisation of America, a decades-long economic and social transformation that lacks a recognisable set of cinematic referents simply because blue collar work was hardly ever featured in the nation’s films to begin with.


The factories of the Terminator films are already depopulated. Unlike the research facilities that are guarded  - in Judgment Day - by their own paramilitary security forces, these are buildings without so much as a night janitor. In The Terminator, Connor and Reese waltz into one such factory and initiate an automatic production sequence simply by flicking a random series of switches on a console, thus setting in motion a series of whizzing robotic arms and appendages whose overt purpose is to remind us of the dehumanisation of work and invite us to consider the small step that supposedly separates replacing the odd worker from killing all humans.

Unpacking Hollywood technophobic fantasies is never straightforward, and mostly pointless: of course James Cameron’s rage against the machine is a glaring paradox, just like the condemnation of simulations by the Wachowski brothers in The Matrix is a glaring paradox. The underlying messages are never subversive, the social analyses always absent. These are stories that are ground out of the raw material of literature and philosophy by a semi-industrial process – think of the heavy and contested debt of both The Terminator and The Matrix to their various respective sources – and that carry trace quantities of more coherent artistic visions and more serious reflections. But what Hollywood also does, more than any other single global cultural site, is to reify fantasy, that is to say define each year what counts as real imagination. This can be observed for example in the press releases of the companies that make the software used in post-production, which are all about setting and re-setting the always shifting benchmarks of verisimilitude.

So, even at its worst, American apocalyptic cinema engages in the culturally significant task of imagining what the end of the world or the decline of particular social classes might look like, and mobilises to this end a formidable technical and creative apparatus. Additionally, a franchise like Terminator allows to observe within a single storyline the evolution of the means of producing such a fantasy over time – to be precise, the twenty-five years that separate the original Terminator to Salvation. On this, some scattered observations.

Firstly, there is the most obvious transition from mechanical to digital effects, and from low to high budget, and its failure to improve on the aesthetic of the original. I’m parting ways with k-punk here, who has expressed admiration for Salvation’s ‘CyberGothic’ – there was nothing to my mind in the last instalment that improved on the low-tech, low-budget flash forwards of the first Terminator, or that expanded on the image of future Earth as a corpse-strewn waste land that populated Kyle Reese’s memory and Sarah Connor’s nightmares in instalments one and two. And this is not just not very imaginative of the film-makers. It’s also not very imaginative of the machines.


Consider the factory where the final confrontation in Salvation is set. There is a suitably sombre moment when John Connor realises that he’s standing on the factory floor on which the Terminators are built. These are early models, T-800s. He knows them well, and so do we. One of them is a computer-simulated and, in all fairness, entirely credible version of the Arnold Schwarzenegger of 1984. The others are endoskeletons that have yet to come on-line. But what’s more notable about this factory is that it looks like it was designed by humans: it has stairs and elevators and doors, hydraulic piping and large wheels for opening and closing valves manually. So whereas on one hand the machines appear fiendish in their, well, machinations, always looking for new ways to infiltrate and deceive the resistance, they are baffling failures at creating environments in their own image. The ‘Moto-Terminators’ (an innovation of Salvation) are a typical example: these androids ride armoured motorbikes that they actually have to control, meaning that if the rider is unseated or killed the bike itself is rendered useless, for it has no intelligence of its own. Furthermore, the occasional point-of-view shots from inside the Terminators’ brains indicate that they visualise data in Arabic numbers and select options from sets of commands in English; but of course it’s not just human symbolic language but the very idea of a ‘computer screen’ for somebody to look at that is entirely redundant if you happen to be the computer.

What is most striking about the world of the machines is all this vestigial humanity, all the inherited tics that our mind children appear unable to unlearn. What was the point of becoming self-aware if Skynet was just going to take over and be like us? For that matter, why wage all-out war on humanity? On this point, The Matrix rather more intelligently suggests that the best way for machines to enslave us would be to run a programme that looked and behaved exactly like late capitalism. The takeover by means of the greater and greater mechanisation of labour is an outdated scenario that later Terminator films need to keep playing out simply because it’s what the future looked like in 1984, when the android or replicant seemed the most likely successor to the human race. Nowadays the synthetic other looks rather more like a financial instrument than a robot.


But here’s another question: why is the T-800 anatomically correct? And by the way, we can infer that it is because none of the people who briefly see it naked when it travels to the past ever shout “look, a giant naked man with no penis!”, but the approving glance of a waitress in Judgment Day, above, is the only proof positive – it’s not as if Arnie’s schlong is ever in view. Nonetheless: the T-800 is an infiltration unit, but only insofar as it needs to appear human for long enough to come within shooting range of actual humans. We also know that all T-800s look alike, meaning the disguise would only go so far if you happened to survive the first meeting with one of them.

Still, even if we speculated that Skynet gave the T-800 a penis just to stick with the design, or on the off chance that it might some day have to exterminate a nudist colony, it would be another one of those incidental, vestigial attributes, but also one that calls attention to the fact that the machines do not seek pleasure. On this point it might be worth reminding ourselves that the eighties were not only the decade of the killer robot but also of the sexy robot, meaning not just Blade Runner’s Roy, Pris and Rachael, or Kelly LeBrock’s character in Weird Science, but ones that would get naked right down to the chassis in the works of illustrators such as Hajime Sorayama, without forgetting Donna Haraway’s infinitely more layered but still resolutely pleasure-seeking cyborgs.

None of these creatures remotely resemble Skynet and its machines, whose business time is strictly regular business time: meaning the fulfilment of whatever mission might be at hand, with the corporate and military senses of the word both in play. Clare Danes’ character in Rise of the Machines quizzes the reprogrammed T-800 about this, asking it if it cares about the well-being of its charges, to which the reply is:
If you were to die I would become useless. There would be no reason for me to exist.
The liberated machines have simply turned inwards the utilitarian principle on which they were once built. And so comes the answer to Philip Dick’s question: these androids don’t dream.

If the machines are strangely maladjusted to the world that they inherit, so too are Sarah and John Connor to the world that fails to end: having trained for the post-apocalypse, they cannot adjust to society this side of the catastrophe. And so they drift, gaining a fleeting sense of community from their association with a gang of Mexican outlaws – whether criminal or revolutionary, is left unclear – but always coming back to the country where they are routinely incarcerated or lumped with the clinically insane.

She used to be a waiter. He’s an occasional road gang worker who lives off the grid and is caught stealing drugs from a veterinary clinic. Their ritual insistence that ‘there is no fate but what we make’ is belied by the fact that there is plainly no future for them in human society and that they don’t believe in the possibility of social change. And so when Sarah dies of cancer, one year after the scheduled end of the world that she had managed to defer in Judgment Day, she asks that her ashes be scattered but her coffin be filled with assault rifles and grenades, for the fight against the machines that might yet come, and the revolution that never will.



One last image. By the time the second Terminator film was made, in 1991, the steel crisis was two decades old, yet a vat of molten steel is to this day one of the stock images of industrialisation and a symbol of our capacity to manufacture things. (A current Hyundai ad campaign emphasises this.) In Judgment Day, it becomes the means of undoing progress, of literally forgetting the advances that we can speculate about but have yet to pass: it is the place where the T-1000 comes to die, shrieking horribly and shape-shifting as it flails about in its final spasms, the embodiment of the nightmare of a future without work, a future that doesn’t need us.




The Terminator (James Cameron, USA, 1984)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, USA, 1991)
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Jonathan Mostow, USA, 2003)
Terminator Salvation (McG, USA, 2009)

This has just come to hand: Aaron Bady on first seeing The Terminator in 2008.



Monday, September 19, 2011

The Well-Adjusted


The privatisation of stress is a perfect capture system, elegant in its brutal efficiency. Capital makes the worker ill, and then multinational pharmaceutical companies sell them drugs to make them better. The social and political causation of distress is neatly sidestepped at the same time as discontent is individualised and interiorised.

(Mark Fisher)


Having adapted or conformed suitably to new conditions, the well-adjusted go confidently about their business. And their business is most likely to be contract work in a finance, services, marketing or IT-related field. These are proper new economy jobs, as opposed to old economy jobs that have been rebranded and casualised. The strategist. The outside consultant. The optimiser. The optimisation strategy consultant.

However the well-adjusted are not primarily a social class. They are a socialised class.

The well-adjusted rely on social media and mobile communication to craft and maintain their personal and professional reputation. This is a tautology, insofar as in the world of the well-adjusted the personal is the professional.

The well-adjusted are effortlessly ingratiating. Their mediated social interactions are always calculated to maximise the likes and minimise the dislikes. But calculated is a misleading term, for the rhetorical techniques and the inter-personal algorithms necessary to achieve this goal have been fully interiorised.

While possession of an iPhone device or equivalent does not alone a well-adjusted person make, it is necessary to own an iPhone device or equivalent in order to aspire to well-adjusted status. The capacity to police one’s reputation on the go is an essential requirement.

The well-adjusted enthuse about Twitter and are dismissive of Facebook, but are active on both.

The well-adjusted do not check their messages or Twitter and Facebook updates with obsessive frequency. They check them with the correct frequency.

Politically, the well-adjusted gravitate towards the left of centre. Professing to oppose the neoliberalism that produced the economy in which they thrive, they nonetheless maintain that the reforms of the nineteen-eighties were necessary and retain a soft commitment to social democratic goals – think New Labour in Britain, or Clark’s Labour in New Zealand – combined with the belief that there is no alternative to free-market capitalism, a flexible labour market and a lean, rationally streamlined welfare state. They call this ‘being pragmatic’. By contrast, right wingers who believe that radical neoliberal reform will lead to a purer, truer welfare for those who actually need it are forced to defend that conviction on purely ideological grounds.

Having adapted or conformed suitably to new conditions, the well-adjusted don’t believe in ideology. They believe in rational, evidence-based debate on an issue-by-issue basis. There is nothing that the well-adjusted love more than data, but they rarely question how it has been collected outside of a quick check to make sure that the methodology is in order. Attempting even a watered-down Foucaudian critique of this position is one of the few sure ways of irritating the well-adjusted, who are otherwise largely unflappable.

To their credit, the well-adjusted are excellent listeners and there is virtually no limit to the points of view that they are prepared to consider and dismiss.

The well-adjusted believe that politics is the art of the possible, where by ‘possible’ they really mean ‘what can reasonably be achieved within the next six months’. However this doesn’t stop them from supporting a range of campaigns and social causes, typically by means of retweeting as opposed to marching.

The well-adjusted believe that anthropogenic climate change is a scientific fact and advocate sustainable living.

The well-adjusted are in favour of multiculturalism, chiefly in that it broadens the range of available recipes and ingredients. For the well-adjusted are passionate about food. Often you can tell a well-adjusted household just by looking at the spice rack. Or the wine rack. Or the whisky cabinet.

And the coffee, God, the coffee. You don’t want to get the well-adjusted started about coffee. Jesus Christ.

In all matters related to food and drink, and many others beside, the well-adjusted reify taste over culture. So for instance a well-adjusted shopper may purchase Parmigiano Reggiano or the scandalously expensive ‘parmesan’ produced by Kapiti Cheeses in New Zealand. But if it turns out that they like the knock-off better, then the Kapiti Parmesan will be declared as good (and functionally ‘real’, ‘authentic’) as Parmigiano Reggiano, if not more so, and become a suitable substitute in all Italian recipes that call for this particular type of cheese.

Taste being an end in itself, and requiring little by way of education (or study, or understanding), the well-adjusted are happy to enjoy the things that most people enjoy, including – in post-ironic fashion – the most exploitative manifestations of popular culture. They would dismiss Neil Postman’s arguments in Amusing Ourselves to Death simply in that he had them at ‘amusing’: an enjoyable spectacle by definition can do no harm, either to the spectator or to more nebulous categories such as culture or discourse. Criticism is therefore reduced to the form of the review, and critical theory is dismissed out of hand.

A corollary to this is that nothing could be further than snobbery from the sensibility of the well-adjusted, and indeed the well-adjusted are not to be confused with hipsters. Hipsters are in fact far more capable of self-reflection than the well-adjusted, and besides the well-adjusted are neither setters nor followers of fashion. Although they pride themselves on always being current and informed about the latest trends, they do not feel pressured to conform to them.

So what do the well-adjusted look like? For a picture that is about to become out of date, trawl any archive of stock photographs with the search phrase ‘person with laptop’. Then you eliminate the ones who are too laid back,



the formally dressed,


or those who appear to be overdoing it (a phone, a laptop and your card? Plus, the well-adjusted know their credit card details by heart.)


Until you end up with something like this.





Busy, casual, relaxed, connected. Working – possibly, although it's hard to say – yet at the same time chilling out, at home or in a café.

(I say the picture is about to become out of date because the laptop will soon have to go. It’s just that ‘person with smartphone’ is compositionally more awkward and hasn’t quite produced an equally satisfying set of interchangeable images yet.)

This last exercise should have finally clarified that the well-adjusted do not exist except as a sociological construct, a composite image, a demographic profile. For the purposes of this post I deduced most of their characteristics by going through this article by Mark Fisher on the privatisation of stress and working my way backwards: that is to say by reversing the distressed mindset of the workers and would-be workers who in the course of the past two to three decades have had to metabolise chronic job insecurity and the constant shrinking of social safety nets, and attempting to produce its negative image.

To put it another way: if the success of capitalist realism is measured by the generalised belief that there is no alternative not only to the status quo but also to further neoliberal reforms (the only way out is to go deeper), then – if only because goods still need to be sold, but also and far more importantly to create a screen in front of the distressed subject – there must also exist a more cheerful narrative predicated on wilful acceptance. However creating this narrative is not solely the task of marketers and advertisers, nor ideologues or politicians for that matter: it is the culture itself that must produce the image of a model, contented subject by working inductively through the demands that are put on each of us.

Job insecurity and living from contract to contract are a source of anxiety? Then there must be somebody for whom this is not so, somebody for whom the designation of freelance (lovely word, that) is an opportunity for deducting some cost of living items from their taxes and who uses the enforced downtime as an opportunity for rest and recreation. The social and professional demand to be always communicatively available and plugged into multiple networks is a source of stress? Then there must be people who are only too happy to always be available, and for whom checking Twitter and Facebook updates or new emails and text messages never becomes a compulsive habit.

Because ultimately, if I can’t make it work, it must be my fault. If I can’t trust that the work will come, and that I won’t get sick, it must be my fault. If I feel ambivalent about some aspects of food culture, reality television or the Rugby World Cup, it must be my fault. I must adjust my settings and learn to enjoy. Some online communities can help with that, teach you how to smooth the corners. Not any single person can be well-adjusted, but together we can reach homeostasis and create a self-adjusted whole. A model, ideal subject: liberal, cultured, non-judgmental, environmentally conscious, socially aware. That’s someone, or something, to be. Don’t corporations also strive to embody those characteristics?

And so the social networks, as well as a place for creating and sharing on the margins of the established pathways of capitalism, are also this: a training ground for the aspiring well-adjusted. Which is to say – seeing as more and more the personal truly is the professional – a tool to fight insecurity, to behave more appropriately and become better liked, hence more employable; but also to derive much-needed psychological comfort from that collectively constructed simulacrum (or stock photograph, if you will) that is the well-adjusted person. Yet the simulacrum operates in turn as a source of anxiety, for it embodies and sharpens the demand to conform to that model subject and naturalises the workings of the system that produces it. (And here we glimpse the mechanisms of community without solidarity that Fisher hints at when he refers to the individualisation of discontent.)

I don’t have much to offer by way of conclusion, other than to suggest that we might wish to pay a qualitatively different kind of attention to the attempts at communication that fail, to the awkwardness, perhaps even the trolling, not as flawed or disruptive strategies to be designed out of the system, but rather as qualities of a different kind of subject – the maladjusted – to be considered in a dialectical relationship with its opposite. That could be something to pursue. In the meantime, read The Privatisation of Stress, for it is illuminating. I’ve also compiled a brief separate entry on the well-adjusted child.





Monday, September 12, 2011

Animal Treatment


At the moment, Happy Feet is in a cage with ice. There is a GPS tracker glued to his feathers. When he is in the sea, a satellite will follow where he is. You can follow this too on two websites: www.nzemperor.com or www.ourfarsouth.org. (Via)



The body of eighty-eight year old Michael Clarke was found two weeks ago in his apartment, in the so-called ‘Zoo Block’ of Wellington’s Newtown Park Flats. It had laid there for up to fourteen months. Council workers who had tried to inform Mr Clarke of the pending demolition of the building raised the alarm when it became apparent that none of the calling cards that they had left over the course of several weeks had been collected. That’s how they found him.

I know the flats well and walk past them often, on the way either to Newtown park or the adjacent zoo. The estate has been for some time in a squalid state of repair, and I wasn’t surprised when it transpired earlier this year that, rather than opting for a cosmetic refurbishment, the council had decided to gut them and start afresh. The first block to be stripped back to its bare structure was the one closest to town. The one at the opposite end, next to the town belt and the zoo, was – is – to be demolished altogether.

Systems. There are systems in place, a 20-year housing upgrade programme with money set aside and a timetable, to make the council housing complexes more liveable. But there are no systems to check that the tenants are actually alive. Stephanie Cook, leader of Wellington council’s social portfolio, was candid about this: ‘We're not running an institution. We're providing homes for people and they have a right to privacy.’ And besides, she added: ‘He lived quietly, he paid his rent and we had no reason to think that anything was wrong.’

For over a year, Michael Clarke lived as quietly as only a dead person can. The money for rent and utilities was paid automatically out of his account with the funds from the superannuation that was paid into it. And this apparently was enough to make him invisible. But whatever latitude you may be inclined to give to Councillor Cook – was there really no reason to think anything might be wrong with an eighty-eight year old man who lived alone? – the Mayor’s own press release was grotesquely misguided:
[This incident] serves as a reminder that we should all think about our neighbours’ welfare. Getting to know your neighbours - even if it just means knowing their name and saying hello - is an important way of keeping our community connected and strong.

Does it even need to be said? The forgetting of Michael Clarke was not a failure on the part of the people who lived in close proximity to him. Without decent living conditions you may not even think of your dwelling as a dwelling, or of your neighbours as neighbours. ‘We're boxed away in here and the only way you get out is in a box’ is how one of the residents put it to The Dominion Post. But although the local paper filed some sensitive reports following the incident, as well as reminding us that it’s been over ten years since the Wellington coroner urged the council to institute checks to prevent this very thing from happening again and again, it has stopped short of demanding the resignation of the officials in charge, or expressing any palpable outrage. Life, or lack thereof, goes on.


They call them lonely deaths, and of course they are hardly confined to our council estates, or this city. In England, they are an especially notable problem in the context of the Irish diaspora. In Italy, the stories often involve poorly maintained gas stoves whose aged owners become literal time bombs. In Japan, where the expression was coined in the 1980s – in the native idiom the word is kodokushi, literally ‘isolated deaths’ – it has proved to be a boon for the cleaning industry. It is also in Japan that the connection with economic as opposed to purely social determinants has been made most explicit.
The collapse of the bubble economy after 1990 shrunk the size of Japanese firms and led to a restructuring that is still playing out today. The percentage of the workforce employed in part-time, temporary and contract work has tripled since 1990, forcing workaholic Japanese businessmen, many of whom never married, into a lonely early retirement. "Their world has evaporated under their feet," says Scott North, an Osaka University sociologist who studies Japanese work life. "The firm has been everything for these men. Their sense of manliness, their social position, their sense of self is all rooted in the corporate structure."
If the proposition is true, if one of the root causes of this phenomenon is the casualisation of labour – plus or minus the degree of identification with one’s corporate employer described by Professor North – we’re going to see, as well as not see, a lot more Michael Clarkes in the years to come.



Three days after council staff forced their way into Mr Clarke’s bedsit, the stray emperor penguin known as Happy Feet farewelled its temporary quarters at Wellington Zoo to begin its journey back to Antarctica. While the release back into the wild of a rescued animal might have called for a celebration, the announcement focussed largely on the money spent on the bird (in the area of $30,000) and was careful to note that the costs incurred by the zoo above its normal operating budget had been covered by private donations. This, in response to a polemic that boiled down more or less to the following question: ‘how can we spend this kind of money on a flightless bird that got lost when human children go hungry?’

My conflation of the two events in this post notwithstanding, I admit to not finding the notion of welfare for penguins especially troubling. One of the zoo’s functions is to care for stray or wounded birds, and this one was a rather extraordinary case. While an editorial in The Manawatu Standard actually employed the phrase ‘where do we draw the line?’, I think it’s unlikely that we’ll see a massive influx of emperor penguin bludgers – or if we do, then we’ll have to deal with it, much as we do with beached whales and the like. We need to find ways to look after people and animals, it seems to me, and fund sports and the arts and education besides. The debate on how to actually prioritise spending in each area, not to mention how and from whom to collect the money, is best not conducted on such spurious grounds.

However in other respects the temporal and spatial collision of the two stories is more instructive, more exemplary. That there is a section of the council flats known as ‘Zoo Block’ is appalling to begin with, but it’s difficult to look past the associations that it conjures: between the place that nobody will visit – even when it is their job – and the place next door where people will queue and pay good money to get in and gaze at the residents; between the designed dwellings for the animals, and the drab modular bedsits for the humans; and most of all between the two protagonists, the penguin and the pensioner: one a celebrity, the other a recluse; one cared for, the other literally left to rot; one constantly stared at via closed circuit cameras or tracked via GPS transmitters, the other invisible.

None of this is to suggest a crude equivalence, or that we should advocate for identical treatments – and do what, place older council tenants under 24-hour webcam surveillance? – but rather to reflect on those systems of care and neglect operating side by side, on the politics that produce them and on the public narratives that they engender: not just about welfare and the proper treatment of animals and people, but also about who has the right and the duty to look and to see.

The case of Michael Clarke is a refutation that society works as a Panopticon, keeping a constant and watchful eye on its subjects: all that it took for this lonely retiree to move into the shadows was a sufficient flow of funds and effective banking arrangements. Based on the evidence that he continued to be an economic subject, the system simply assumed that he was also a living one (I leave the biopolitical implications to those who care to pursue them). With Happy Feet, the reverse has happened: since his GPS transmitter stopped sending signals, it was quickly speculated that the penguin must have died a gruesome death, however unlikely that eventuality might in fact be. So of Michael Clarke we said we can’t see him, therefore he must be alive; whereas of Happy Feet we say we can’t see it, therefore it’s probably dead. And of course it very much matters that we wish to look at one and not the other. Surveillance is also a spectacle onto which desire and pleasure are projected.

The mechanisms of enjoyment play a part in this. And so the international hide-the-homeless tournament also known as the Rugby World Cup seems a not inappropriate time to consider the life and death of Michael Clarke, and of the others like him who are put in boxes and then forgotten – or put there so that they can be forgotten.








If you read German or Italian, this poem at Francesca’s place is also pertinent.



Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Three.



Threatening to fall off the map is the city of Cheltenham.


I think that if I could tell you what it is that intrigues me about this detail, it would go a long way towards making some of the theoretical points I am forever deferring in the writing of this blog. There is a map of England and Wales at one inch to a mile, a beautiful object in and of itself – printed on cloth in the nineteen-twenties – a work of great accomplishment, of self-assured technocratic will to knowledge, and then there is that little bulge in sectors E/F-14 of sheet 92: Cheltenham protrudes eastward, into the uncharted void. And to be sure there is nothing unconventional about this, it’s just commonsense applied to cartography, but still it tickles me. What does it mean to imagine oneself or see one’s community represented in that space, at the very edge of the map; what does it mean to go over the margin.

On a very concrete level this blog is a map of my interests, some of which are very marginal indeed. And then on each blog anniversary I get to talk about my second-hand books acquisitions for the past twelve months, which are another such map – random, idiosyncratic, and yes, marginal. Blogging itself is about writing on the edges of the public conversation, but the aptness didn’t occur to me until later. When I started this tradition I just wanted to indulge, share my excitement of a fresh visit to the Wellington Downtown Community Ministry Book Fair.

That’s where I got sheet 92 of the Ordnance Survey of England and Wales of 1918, in an undated edition published by authority of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. Such an exquisite little object. And priced at $2, like almost everything else in sight on the day at TSB Arena. A most democratic approach to discarded knowledge.


The loot from each fair tends to have a theme, but not so this time. I guess it’s got to the point where I’m mostly building on the existing collection – New Zealand social history, old feminisms, pre-cyberpunk science fiction. I always seem to go back to those.


So much to love about this railway magazine from January 1934, not least the cover design. I hope my antiquarian interest in such things never comes across as a knowing appreciation of things that are cool. Quite frankly I loathe retronauts and everything they stand for, and it’s not a nod to the hauntology of it all either, although I’m certainly closer to that sensibility. I just think that all of these documents still have a lot to say, things that matter in the present. They trace genealogies of knowledge, aesthetics and thought. They contain concrete ways of thinking that deserve to be examined and grappled with, even, where appropriate, salvaged.


Pocket size Penguin and Pelican books hark back to a time when speculative fiction and criticism alike were affordable, portable and marketed to a mass public, and I’m always on the lookout for those.





You need more space on the shelves to build a comparable library of works of a local bent, but that’s no reason not to do it.




And hey, look, my very own copy of The Quest for Security.


Speaking of my adoptive country, I nabbed a rather formidable gazetteer that predates Maurice Shadbolt’s by a decade.


Also in 1962, this classic’s outsider’s view (another favourite genre) reached its fifth edition.


Sometimes a great find leaves me a little sad. I wonder for instance what motivated the owner of many of Joanna Russ’ finest books to get rid of them on the year that she died.



But life goes on, and indeed I never leave without a few books for children, especially of the instructional kind


or aimed at adults so that they can then go teach the children


or, most ominously of all, that teach children to teach themselves.


Speaking of which, as soon as I’m finished teaching myself Italian


I’ll be able to have a crack at a few more languages.


And I could go on. This was the year when I found two more This Is New Zealand books by the wonderful Sheffield House, as well as this, and, in Italy, a monograph on Socrates portentously entitled ‘He drank the hemlock to create modern man’ that turned out to include a little paper bust of the philosopher that you could send back to the publisher to go in the draw for the Golden Socrates prize competition (closes: June 1973). I like that books can still surprise you with things like that.




This may also be the year that I finally buy myself a Kindle-like product, because after all it’s not as if I am greatly prejudiced against electronic books, or can’t see the use. It’s just that I persist in finding the old kind so much more interesting and provocative. A book is an object that creates a friction, that weighs you down, that slows you down – not unlike culture, history, memory. It should have physical characteristics that match that.

There is another idea I’ve been playing with in these anniversary posts: that writing doesn’t take time, it makes time. Of course I need to keep telling myself that in order to justify the whole enterprise, since this elaborate hobby is something I have no business finding the time for, but when I look back on a year of these posts I can at least see where some of that time went, and then it looks like something that might not otherwise have been there – if not quite a body of work, at least the concrete trace of a discipline, or possibly a habit. I tried to give it a visual representation below, inspired by the widget over at Poemas del río Wang’s. Clicking on each image will open a post from the last twelve months.

A diary of course will also do that, expand time by allowing you to walk back through it. And I don’t have anything whatsoever against diaries, but how I know that I’m not keeping one is that along with the 47 posts this past year there have been 572 comments, and other forms of engagement through social media and conversation for which I continue to be both delighted and grateful. That there are people that choose to spend time here is still the single thing I value the most, so thank you all for sticking around.


How to Make Love Liveblogging the Apocalypse (7): Combined and/or Uneven The Looting
Our Memory Is a Never-Grey Wall True Names Temple Grandin
Liveblogging the Apocalypse (6): The Triumph of Death This Is New Zealand - American Edition About Postmen
On the Art of Making People Disappear The Deep All Spoons Are Level
Laconia The Shallow The Election
At Sea if:city You Are Not a Gadget
I Write Because I Don't Want to Die War Is Hell (for other people) What Do People Do All Day?
His Journey The Quest for Security Palombella Rossa
On Not Writing Slow Time Toy Story
European Monsters The Museum of You (4): Favourite Things Golden Days
The World Will Be Tron More Than Able The History of Her Blood
The Immortalist In Order of Disappearance Death or Lentils
It's Just a House Landscape with the Fall of Icarus F-f-f-falling
Work-Slash-Life The Lives of Others The Two New Zealands
I'm on a Plain Books in Homes I'm on a Plane
The Questions Asked Two.







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